Automatic Soap Dispensers And Self-Driving Cars

There are some of those automatic soap dispensers in bathrooms at the firm.  We’ve also got automatic faucets.  Both are supposed to be triggered by waving your hand underneath.  The idea is to take the messy, germy human element out of the equation, and let sensors and machines do the job neatly and cleanly.

But here’s the problem — the machines are not very precise.  Sure, for the most part they dispense the dollop of soap or the stream of water when you place your hands underneath.  But 9 times out of 10 another injection of soap occurs after you’ve moved on to the water side, and vice versa.  So, a lot of soap and water seems to get wasted.

And it’s not just the automatic soap and water dispensers at the firm, either.  How often have you found yourself at the movie theater, or the airport, or some other public place, flapping your hands like a magician having a seizure in hopes that the balky machinery will dispense soap, or water, or a tiny section of paper towel that never is sufficient to fully dry your hands?  Typically, they’re not working correctly, are they?

So when I hear about the technological wonders of self-driving cars, and then read about how one of the prototypes had one mishap or another, I nod inwardly and think:  “No surprise there.  They’re just like those stupid soap dispensers.”

I’m probably not going to be in the market for a self-driving car anytime soon.

Recover, Reuse, Relaunch

Yesterday the SpaceX venture reached a new milestone:  the company took a used rocket that it had recovered from a prior mission, relaunched it into space, deposited a customer’s satellite into orbit, and landed the rocket on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean so it can be used again, and again, and again.

falcon-9-dscovr-launchAs I’ve written before, private, commercial ventures like SpaceX are making significant progress in making space flight a common, everyday option.  Yesterday’s flight was a key development in that effort, because a significant part of the cost of space flight has been rockets that are designed, built, and used only once.  That single-use approach might have been viable back in the ’60s, when government funding was plentiful and the United States was on a national quest to be the first country to land a man on the Moon, but it’s simply not sustainable or feasible in our modern world of massive budget deficits and competing national priorities.  It’s also an approach that commercial space concerns could never afford.  That’s why SpaceX has been focused on developing technology that allows those expensive rockets to be reused.

No one should take away from the mighty, ground-breaking accomplishments of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and space shuttle programs, and there remains a key role for governments in space exploration.  Governments will always have more resources than businesses do, and the need for scientific exploration, and the technological developments that seem to inevitably accompany it, will often fall to governmental entities like NASA.  But profit-making entities and capitalist risk-takers are adept at building on the foundation the government has laid and figuring out how to make things affordable and, not incidentally, profitable.

If tourist trips to the Moon and settlements on Mars are in our future — and I hope they are, because I still hold out hope that I might see a glorious Earthrise from the Moon some day — commercial concerns inevitably will play a huge role.  SpaceX’s reusable rocket technology is another important step forward toward a future in which the “final frontier” becomes a much more accessible place.

The End Of Privacy As We Know It

The right to personal privacy isn’t a right that is specifically recognized in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, but it has been a recognized area of the law for decades, as well as a treasured ideal for many Americans.  For many people, the right to be left alone is an important one.

But this is another area where technology is simply changing the game.  Whether it is cookies left on personal computers that lead to pop-up ads that are specifically targeted to your website viewings, search engines that can sift through mounds of news stories, photos, and data in split seconds whenever a name is entered, tracking mechanisms on cell phones, surveillance cameras on every street corner, drones in the air, computer hacking, or listening devices that are routinely used by governmental entities, technology makes the ability to maintain some zone of privacy harder and harder.

20130203_adde1Social media also has had a significant impact.  Anyone who likes the convenience of Facebook as a way to keep in touch with their old friends, family members and colleagues is giving up a piece of their privacy.  And when technology and social media meet, the erosion can become even more pronounced.

Consider the news that a software developer has used the advances in facial recognition software to develop an app that allows you to take a photo of a stranger in a public place and immediately run a search for the identity of that person through Facebook.  It’s called Facezam, and it’s apparently going to launch on March 21, although Facebook is raising questions about whether the software is in compliance with the Facebook privacy policy.  But even if Facebook quashes the idea as to Facebook, you would imagine that the app could be modified to be applied to search through other sources of photos.

It’s creepy to think that random strangers, simply by taking your picture in a public place and unbeknownst to you, could then find out who you are and, if they’re so inclined, track you down.  One person in the story linked above describes that concept as the end of anonymity in public places, and I think that’s right.  If you want to guard against it, you can withdraw from any social media, refuse to get your photo taken, avoid going out in public except in disguise, avoid any travel, and stay in your room.  Those aren’t especially attractive options, are they?

Welcome to the Brave New World!

 

Keyless

I’ve been on the road a lot lately, and many of my travels have required me to rent a car.  Through the rentals, I’ve been introduced to the wonders of keyless automobiles — at least, keyless in the sense of the old-fashioned, cut metal, keychain jangling in your pocket, keymaker and locksmith keys that I associate with cars.

img_3660We bought our Acura just before the keyless revolution really took hold.  It’s got a kind of awkward interim technology, bridging the gap between metal keys and totally electronic unlocking.  There’s a plastic part of the key with buttons that open and lock the doors and the rear gate, but there’s also a little button that you push to make a metal key flip out, and the car’s ignition requires the insertion of that metal key.  It’s as if the designer recognized the simplicity of electronic access, couldn’t quite bring himself to go the Full No-Metal Monty.

When you’ve been using metal car keys all your life, the electronic gizmos take some getting used to.  When I get into a rental car, habit compels me to look for the key in the ignition switch — but of course there is no ignition switch, just a button.  The “key” is a plastic device sitting in the cupholder.  You don’t need to touch it, or do anything with it; it’s very electronic presence is so powerful it allows you to start the car by stepping on the brake and pushing that button.  Because you don’t use the key to turn the car on or off, I always wonder how many people inadvertently leave the key in the car when they’ve completed their journey.  I don’t, because I’m anal about locking any car I use even if it’s totally empty, but I’m guessing that forgotten keys, and perhaps also stolen cars because the keys have been left in them, are a lot more common now than they were before.

I don’t mind the electronic keys, really; we’re living in an increasingly electronic age and you’ve just got to be ready for the next technological leap forward.  But while pushing a button and hearing the engine start is perfectly fine, in my view it doesn’t really compare with the tactile sensation of sliding that key into the ignition switch, feeling the rasp of metal on metal, and turning the key to hear the throaty thrum of the engine.

Jetsons, Here We Come

Brace yourself:  we’re apparently on the verge of a world with flying cars.

Airbus Group, the world’s second largest aircraft manufacturer and largest manufacturer of commercial helicopters, has been working on flying cars for a while now, and the CEO of Airbus recently announced that the company hopes to test a prototype vehicle by the end of the year.  Airbus formed a division called Urban Air Mobility — which would be a pretty good name for a rock band — and it is working on both a vehicle that individuals could use and a multi-passenger transport that could be summoned by riders using a smartphone app, a la Uber.  The prototype that Airbus hopes to test this year is the single passenger vehicle, called the Vahana.  Airbus thinks that in 10 years fully vetted products may be on the market that make urban air transport a reality.

22a6bb3543a28cd162bceb3c6937b684The Airbus business rationale has a decidedly futuristic vibe to it.  The concept is that the vehicles would be used in cities, where roadways are jammed but the skies aren’t.  Airbus is forecasting that a growing percentage of the world’s population will congregate in cities, increasing the traffic congestion, and also envisions that cash-strapped governments might welcome air-based transportation because it doesn’t require investment in asphalt, concrete, steel supports, construction workers, and orange cones to shore up the crumbling ground-based traffic infrastructure.  And, because some cities are struggling with pollution — just ask China — Airbus is designing its vehicles to minimize emissions and to avoid adding to the pollution mix.

Do we have the technology for flying cars?  Airbus says yes:  the batteries, motors, and avionics needed are well underway, and the company and others are working on the artificial intelligence and detect-and-avoid sensors and navigation that would be needed to make flying cars a practical reality.  And, of course, there would need to be lots of related developments before flying cars fill the skies.  Would municipalities designate particular flying zones — such as over existing roadways — or just allow fliers to take their cars anywhere?  How would drivers be trained?  And what kind of safety features would regulators require to make flying cars crash-worthy?

For decades, when people have thought about the future, they’ve thought about flying cars.  Now we may be on the cusp of that reality.

“Meet George Jetson . . . .”

Damned Mouse And Cursed Cursor

Technology is great, but of course it poses its own frustrations — like when the batteries suddenly die in your mouse, the cursor freezes on your screen and can’t be moved, point and click becomes inoperative, and the ghostly “connection lost” notice floats up on your screen.  And, of course, there’s not a freaking AA battery to be found in the house, because nobody except an obsessed survivalist is motivated to actually buy batteries until some battery-operated device conks out — and by then it’s too late.

Hey, what did people do to pass the pre-dawn hours in the pre-internet age?  Play Spider Solitaire on their handheld device?

‘Twas The Day After Christmas

It’s the day after Christmas — which for some beleaguered people in the package delivery business is probably about as important as Christmas itself.  This year online retailing once again set a record, which means the package delivery guys have been busting their behinds for weeks and probably are still hustling to deal with the last-minute orders.  As I reflected on the plight of these uniformed soldiers of the modern economy, the poetic muse once more took hold:

The Day After Christmas
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‘Twas the day after Christmas, and all through the land

Fed Ex and UPS remained fully manned

They’ve set a record for deliveries this year

But the last-minute orders have yet to appear

Oh, Amazon!  Oh, Apple!  Oh, Pajamagram!

Your specials and discounts created a jam

The packages and boxes were stacked to the ceiling

The onslaught of orders left deliverers reeling

And because so many waited ’til the last minute

The Christmas Crush?  They’re still in it!

The delivery guys are trying their best

But it’ll take time before they can give it a rest

So if your order hasn’t yet come to your door

Don’t take it out on the delivery corps!

And by the way, I’ll be doing whatever is necessary to avoid going within a one-mile radius of any shopping mall today.