I ever received when my kids were young was this: «Your job as a parent is to prepare your children for their future.» For their future, not the one that you grew into — that’s their past. So when my kids got old enough to be interested. I started News From the Future as a private mailing list for them and their friends, wanting to send them stories that I thought might help prepare them for what may come. But it’s also great grist for a stream-of- consciousness news feed in the style of Harper’s Weekly In that spirit, here are some headlines from recent news stories….
. A new service uses cellphone location to track how fast teens are driving, and sends alerts back to parents, while California is entertaining proposals to require GPS in all cars so that it can tax miles driven rather than gasoline used. China plans to launch 100 surveillance satellites by 2020. But the surveillance society won’t be without its countermeasures, and its rats hiding in the walls. HP just received a patent on a system for broadcasting an “image inhibitor» signal that would fuzz facial images captured by a digital camera.
Never mind outsourcing — the spread of GPS navigation systems is leading to the closure of lighthouses along the German coast. Meanwhile, imaginary worlds are big business: traffic in LA was snarled as thousands tried to get to a new-release event with the creators of the World of Warcraft MMORPG. Maria Schneider won a Grammy for an album financed by her fans and distributed only on the web.
“The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.» — William Gibson fingerprint” service, and Alaskan researchers created an artificial aurora they say might one day be useful for writing advertising messages on the night sky.
Scientists at the University of Manchester have developed an inkjet printer that can print human cells, and a Chicago chef prints out flavored-paper sushi. Ophthalmologists at Rush University Medical Center implanted artificial silicon retina microchips in the eyes of five patients, and in San Diego, researchers plan to hold an arm-wrestling match between a human being and an artificial arm made from electro active polymers. A Utah State University professor plans RFID-equipped robots to guide blind people to products in the supermarket. And a company in Los Angeles is taking orders for genetically engineered hypo-allergenic cats. Freeman Dyson wonders if we’re ending the “Darwinian interlude.»
NASA is looking at commercial alternatives for space-station resupply, and a private space-flight bill was signed into law.
Insect Inside. Garnet Hertz will never want or need to debug his mobile robot, because it’s controlled by a live cockroach. Fastened into the three-wheeled vehicle via cemented to its back, the bug drives by moving a ping-pong ball under its feet. The ball fits into the workings of a Kensington trackball, turned 45 degrees so that its two axes correspond to angled-left and angled-right, rather than horizontal and vertical. The movements are then decoded and amplified by transistors to drive left and right rear wheels, which turn in slightly to reflect the roach’s steering direction.
Power comes from twin 24-volt DC motors and a 24-volt battery. Meanwhile, four infrared proximity sensors surround the front of the vehicle and switch on a row of LEDs that shine in the roach’s eyes when the vehicle approaches an object. Because cockroaches avoid light, this is intended to discourage the robot from bumping into things. But if the insect evaluates the distance it travels based on the length of its un enhanced stride, it’s possible that when its steps are greatly amplified — as they are when it is placed in the robot — its ability to navigate will be impaired.
The bug buggy’s CPU is a Giant Madagascan Hissing Cockroach (Gromphadorhina portentosa). Hertz has worked with the species before, and it’s well suited to such applications. Their size and strength let them move relatively large objects, and their native forest-floor habitat makes them well suited to being literally pressed into service. Working with insects requires no animal ethics procedures or approvals, unlike with mammals, and anyway, if you mistreat G. portentosa. it will hiss loudly. Cockroaches in general, meanwhile, carry a pile of personal and cultural associations. Everyone has had their own vivid experiences with the Kafkaesque insects, and this just adds to the fun. Hertz is most interested in how the cockroach does not act like a computer chip, how its behavior defies easy logic. Watching the roach bot cruise along at slow walking speed, stumbling and bumping into things, it’s impossible not to wonder about the underlying neural processes, which propagate through a distributed set of ganglia rather than a central brain. On another level, the robot system is meant to be funny, but some also see it as a dark reduction of human-machine interaction. Following this theme. Hertz’s paper describing the project. “Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine.» takes its name from the subtitle of Norbert Wiener’s seminal 1948 book. Cybernetics.
Hertz first demonstrated his roach mobile at last year’s SIGGRAPH. where it milled around the audience during the conference’s popular wearable- computing fashion show. At this year’s SIGGRAPH. however. Hertz feels that his state-of-the-art roach couture may be ready for the runway. Paul Spinrad
15-Mile-High Club. Forget billionaire Richard Branson’s overpriced tourist spaceships. For a few thousand bucks, physics student Art Berg put his computer-controlled model glider 79.000 feet into the stratosphere. This summer, he plans to launch a second prototype even higher.
The ill-fated test craft had a wingspan of about four feet, weighed about six pounds, and achieved its high altitudes when carried by helium-filled weather balloons. A glider is much more versatile than other payloads, which often depend on parachutes to fall to Earth. Van den Berg’s craft remained aloft for up to four hours, snapping beautiful, low-res color pics the whole time. «Above 60.000 feet the Earth has a definite curvature; the temperature’s around -50 degrees Celsius [-58° F]. and the sky is black because you’re above most of the atmosphere.» notes the native of Victoria. Canada. And most of the time, the plane flew right back to the launch site.
For a pilot less craft, the fiberglass and shell hid a lot of smarts. A fist-size 25-MHz PC in the fuselage ran DOS and over 13.000 lines of code that Van den Berg lovingly programmed himself in C. The operator could provide manual control via the radio link, but the glider usually flew autonomously using a large set of software decision trees. Position and flight data streamed into the system from a Garmin GPS sensor and sensors for temperature, direction. G-load. and airspeed. The glider sent real-time photos and atmospheric readings to the ground using a packet-radio with a 120-mile range.
On its fifth and last journey, the glider couldn’t quite clear a snowy mountain peak nearly 60 miles from the launch site. “It was actually good luck because now I can build a really skookum glider.» says Van den Berg, employing local slang for “cool.» He now has a new airframe at almost half the weight and a good chance at pulling images from 89.000 feet above the surface of the Earth. Bob Parks
Tim Keith began the project as an under grad physics major at Rutgers University, soon after learning how the machines worked, at least in theory. Keith and his friend Stuart Hanebuth worked on the atom-smash for several years and saw their first proton beam in 1999; now the devices are permanent fixtures in the physics department and part of Rutgers’ standard senior lab curriculum.
The cyclotrons are named for the pole diameters of their water-cooled electromagnets: there’s the 9- inch and the 12-inch. Most of the parts for both were scrounged, bought used for cheap, or custom-fab- ricated at the university machine shop. The 12-inch cyclotron uses a 2.5-ton magnet that came from Argonne National Laboratory, where it had been the steering magnet for a decommissioned accelerator. The vacuum chambers and the cylindrical vessel positioned between the poles where all the action takes place were fabled out of stainless steel, with Viton synthetic rubber O-ring seals and an off-the- shelf diffusion pump.
When the 12-inch cyclotron runs, hydrogen from an outside tank slowly leaks through a pipe into a small ceramic cup in the center of the chamber. Inside the cup. a glowing electric filament splits the hydrogen ions, a.k.a. protons, away from their electrons. (Don’t try this at home, unless your home has no oxygen.) Meantime, square-wave AC runs through the electromagnet, producing a shifting field that’s precisely timed using grad-school equations to accelerate the ions in an ever-faster spiral outward. The much lighter electrons are immediately swept far off in the opposite direction and absorbed by the apparatus, which is grounded. In other experiments deuterium replaces hydrogen, and the magnetic field is timed to accelerate a proton- neutron pair rather than a single proton.
At the end of its acceleration, the beam is interrupted and detected by instruments inside the vacuum chamber. Getting the beam to exit would require an electrostatic projector to peel particles away from their orbits, and a thin Kevlar seal over the port to maintain the vacuum while letting high- energy particles pass through.
Keith’s success demonstrates that no physics project, no matter how advanced, is beyond the capability of creative and determined college students. Let that be an inspiration, and a warning. Paul Spinrad