This Wonderful New Age
Here we are careening through the 21st Century, reaping the benefits of brave new technologies. What just came on the market is already obsolete, it’s on to the next new thing. Because of the sheer quantity of new inventions, it stands to reason that some of them will be dubious achievements, at best (remember Zima?). Those are the ones I want to tell you about.
You’re probably too young to remember mood rings in the 1970s, which changed colors with your mood. Microsoft has just patented the Mood Shirt™. It doesn’t just detect your mood, it will change it for you! Sensors pick up heart rate, skin temperature, and body motion, determine your mood, and triggers stimulators in the fabric. Microsoft describes it as “a wearable device that conveys information to a user. The device includes a master soft circuit cell and a plurality of activation soft circuit cells.” Got that? It then stimulates pressure or heat, and if the occasion calls for it, musical vibrations. The patent states, “The wearable device implementation interacts with the user’s senses in a manner that can mitigate a negative affective state, e.g. calm or happy, among others.” No, thanks anyway.
Have you heard of Shreddies? No, not the cereal, the underwear that filters passed gas (I don’t care for the term fart; it’s so vulgar). This is no half-assed idea. The U.K. company uses Filtrex™ technology, and its “award-winning flatulence filtering garments offer maximum comfort, classic styling, and flatulence filteration.” The Zorflex™ activated carbon cloth garments are available in briefs and pajamas, and also in models for the incontinent. Men’s briefs are $45 each, women’s $35, 3-packs are cheaper, add $10 for shipping. But before you rip a big one off in a crowded elevator, keep in mind that noise filtration technology hasn’t quite caught up yet.
Hoverboards — we have hoverboards now, just like in “Back to the Future!” No, actually we don’t. Despite the fact that the disc-shaped engines “induce an opposite magnetic field in the surface substrate below that provides lift . . .” hoverboards don’t hover, nor do they levitate (yet). They are really self-balancing scooters, like the Segway. And they are being sued by Segway for patent infringement. One thing hoverboards do very well, though, is explode into flames, and often enough that they aren’t allowed on flights. The problem is with the lithium ion batteries, which cannot take an overcharge.
There’s been a big noise lately about the first android actor to appear in a drama. I don’t know about “first.” What about James Franco? And in my day there was also Richard Egan, Doug McClure, Clu Gulager, and many more. Oh well. “Her” name is Geminoid F, and she starred in a 20-minute Japanese play, “Sayonara,” back in 2010. Developed by Hiroshi Ishiguro at Osaka University, she contains 12 servo-motors enabling her to speak, smile, and simulate breathing. She must have been easy for a director to work with; never forgot her lines, delivered them precisely the same way every time. She cannot walk, so her character uses a wheelchair. And don’t worry if her acting appears robotic. She plays an android caregiver in the future, reading poetry to a woman with a fatal disease. The feature-length film came out last year. The Japanese are absolutely crazy over robots. We hear about it all the time. In fact, there’s a hotel in Sasebo with robots making up 90% of the staff.
This last April the Chinese debuted Anbot, the world’s first armed police robot (only tasers, so far), “able to patrol autonomously and protect against violence or unrest.” It can respond to all sorts of emergencies, and has a button to press for help. Apparently the Chinese have never seen “Robocop,” or even scarier, maybe they have.
We have our own robots here in the U.S. M.I.T. has been working on interactive robots for therapeutic use, such as with dementia patients. One of them is named PARO, a seal-shaped thing developed by AIST, a leading Japanese (didn’t I tell you?) industrial automaton pioneer. It wiggles its appendages and coos in response to verbal messages. Some of the patients have gotten attached to it, and I know there’s a parable in here somewhere, but more wonders await us.
We love our cars, like no other nation. It’s no accident that the automobile, especially along with the creation of the interstate highway system under Eisenhower, entered our mythology as “the American Dream Machine.” See what you think about some of the latest developments, beginning with the CityCar, which debuted in 2012. Not only was it electric, but its two main segments would fold up when parking, the wheels could turn 180 degrees, so it could just slide in. The door was in front so the driver wouldn’t exit into traffic, a good idea. You could get seven of them into two parking lanes. Recently the company closed and laid off their workers, and seven executives are being investigated for fraud. Currently the company is in receivership. One former worker said the cars were basically held together with Velcro and superglue.
How would you like to buy a new car from a vending machine? Carvana™ has built one in Nashville. It’s five stories high and holds up to 20 automobiles. Lots of hydraulics are involved. Carvana is an on line car dealer, in probably a pretty competitive environment, so innovation could give you an edge in the market. Here’s how it goes: you order your car, make, model and color, than you have to go to the vending machine in Nashville, where you’re handed a token coin to put into the token slot. And hope it doesn’t get hung up in the machinery like that bag of M&Ms in the candy machine.
We all know about Google’s driverless car. But they just took out a patent last month for an adhesive surface for it, you know, in case you want to “pick” someone up. Literally. A pedestrian hit by a car could get even worse injuries from secondary impacts with other cars, to say nothing of the pavement. Not with what’s being called Google’s flypaper car! Here’s a statement from the patent application, and see if you can keep a straight face: “The adhesive bonds the pedestrian to the vehicle so that the pedestrian remains with the vehicle until it stops, and is not thrown from the vehicle, thereby preventing a secondary impact between the pedestrian and the road surface or other object.” It should be easy to spot in traffic; it’ll be the one with birds, cats, and dogs stuck all over it. No, the adhesive is only on the hood, and it has a protective covering to keep out grit and insects.
Another problem with cars we should have seen coming. They’re all computer-controlled now, and therefore can be hacked. And have been. From Wired magazine’s website, July 7, 2015 — Two guys in a Jeep Cherokee, going 70 mph. Suddenly the vents begin blasting hot air, the radio station switches to one playing hip hop, and doesn’t respond to hitting the knobs or buttons. The wipers come on and won’t turn off. The vehicle begins to slow as the brakes are applied by an unseen force, and comes to a stop. They were part of a trial by a third guy, the hacker. How did he get in? Through the car’s entertainment system, which is connected to the internet. Once that’s done, all functions, dashboard, accelerator and brakes, can be controlled. All that’s needed is the car computer’s IP address. Distance is no hindrance, either, because the internet is everywhere, isn’t it? Eventually, your new smart house will be just as susceptible to mischief.
We’ve gotten complacent with our technology and its little miracles, and have forgotten just how vulnerable it can be. A good lesson was given recently at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Switzerland. It operates the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest particle accelerator, with a circumference of roughly 17 miles in which to shoot infinitesimally small particles up to speeds approaching that of light. On April 29th, the installation went off line, and it was several days before it came back on again. They found the cause quickly enough; a weasel, or maybe its larger relative, a marten, had chewed through a power cord. Its identity could not be established, due to its advanced state of crispitude; I believe the phrase was “charred remains.” Think of that; a simple mountain rodent was able to bring down a $7 billion operation for days, reaffirming the old adage about a chain being only as strong as its weakest link.
It’s really okay that goofy things get invented. We can always use a laugh. But out of bad ideas that fail come better ones that succeed. If we use the analogy of a baseball player to technology, nobody hits a home run every time at bat. Sometimes you just plain strike out, and have to go sit down and get ready for your next opportunity.