Innovation

From Spider-Infested Digs, U.S. Company Devises Way to Spin Silk—Sans the Spiders

In the beginning, David Breslauer’s office was infested with spiders—lurking in the corners, hunkered down on their webs, crawling up his arms. “I had one right above my desk, and it pooed on my computer like a pigeon,” he says. And these were large, long-legged beasties, too: Nephila clavipes, an orb-weaving species commonly used in scientific studies. Read more about From Spider-Infested Digs, U.S. Company Devises Way to Spin Silk—Sans the Spiders »

Pedaling to Tomorrow: Could an Electric Bike Kick-Start the Future of Transportation?

Emerging from the San Jose train station on my superfast electric bike, I lean into the first turn, boosted by the latest in lithium-ion battery technology. I’m headed to a business meeting at the Hayes Mansion, eight miles south of the commercial heart of Silicon Valley.

And I am late. Read more about Pedaling to Tomorrow: Could an Electric Bike Kick-Start the Future of Transportation? »

From the Summer 2015 Confronting the Future issue of California.

Speech Saver: Anticipating Upheavals, Project Aims to Preserve the World’s Languages

You’ve probably experienced that unique combination of loss and rage when your computer’s hard drive suddenly crashes, erasing years of work files, financial records, and precious photos in an instant. What if that happened, asks linguist Laura Welcher, of the nonprofit Long Now Foundation, on a civilizational scale?

“Over the span of millennia, you have to expect there to be upheavals in society, times when knowledge is lost,” she says. (Think the Library of Alexandria.) How do we safeguard human knowledge from these future upheavals? Read more about Speech Saver: Anticipating Upheavals, Project Aims to Preserve the World's Languages »

From the Summer 2015 Confronting the Future issue of California.

Robots With Us, Or Against Us? Rethinking the Risks Posed by Artificial Intelligence

“We turned the switch and saw the flashes,” said physicist Leo Szilard, describing his 1942 experiment that created the first controlled nuclear chain reaction. “We watched them for a little while and then turned everything off and went home. That night, there was very little doubt in my mind that the world was headed for grief.” Read more about Robots With Us, Or Against Us? Rethinking the Risks Posed by Artificial Intelligence »

From the Summer 2015 Confronting the Future issue of California.

Parts Department: The You that Survives into the Next Century May be Mostly 3D Printed

The future will be an exciting time to be alive, if for no other reason than it will be so much easier to survive.

We’ll have a bewildering variety of replacement parts for our organs and limbs. Stubborn diseases will be tamed by exotic treatments. New technologies will enable not just better living, but new ways of living. And the human body will reveal all of its secrets in response to our probings in… (dramatic pause) … the year 2000. Read more about Parts Department: The You that Survives into the Next Century May be Mostly 3D Printed »

From the Summer 2015 Confronting the Future issue of California.

Going Chameleon: What a New Material that Changes Color as it Moves Means for Humans

We’ve all probably experienced a moment when we envied a chameleon’s ability to blend into the background—say, after a gaffe at the office holiday party. As it turns out, chameleons change their skin color in response to all kinds of stimuli: physical threats, temperature changes, and the animal’s moods. What if humans could harness that same ability? Read more about Going Chameleon: What a New Material that Changes Color as it Moves Means for Humans »

From the Summer 2015 Confronting the Future issue of California.

Line in the Sand: How Can We Protect a Shoreline from the Ravages of the Future?

When San Francisco’s Great Highway opened in 1929, some 50,000 people celebrated the coastal stretch of pavement with a parade and a 1,014-piece band. A magazine article from the time boasted of “a wonderfully constructed Esplanade of enduring concrete, which will render for all time the beach safe from the destructive effects of the ocean’s activities.” Read more about Line in the Sand: How Can We Protect a Shoreline from the Ravages of the Future? »

From the Summer 2015 Confronting the Future issue of California.

No One Gets Hurt: Why the Future of Crime May Be Less Violent and More Insidious

Among the various anxieties that currently plague affluent modern society, cybercrime surely ranks near the top. It makes sense; as data comes to define our lives to a greater and greater degree, the specter of some unseen hacker pilfering our information with impunity or emptying our bank account with the click of a mouse is justified cause for concern. But perhaps we should consider the alternative.

By way of illustration, consider two robberies of fairly recent memory—one old-school, the other new. Read more about No One Gets Hurt: Why the Future of Crime May Be Less Violent and More Insidious »

From the Summer 2015 Confronting the Future issue of California.

Stir-Fry Crickets and Sauteed Weeds: Why the Food of the Future Won’t Be Nutrient Powder

Remember Tang? It was the “space age” drink that in 1962 astronaut John Glenn sipped in orbit on his Mercury flight, and for a while thought to be the next generation of orange juice. It was considered convenient because it came in powder form, was less perishable than juice, and boasted lots of vitamins and calcium. Read more about Stir-Fry Crickets and Sauteed Weeds: Why the Food of the Future Won't Be Nutrient Powder »

From the Summer 2015 Confronting the Future issue of California.

Effluent Communities: Why Drought Will Mean Learning to Drinking Treated Sewage

It’s the kind of subject that lends itself to the lowest of low humor, but we’ll try to resist that temptation. Because at bottom (sorry), it’s among the most serious of subjects, speaking as it does to basic survival. We’re talking about water (again), of course. But more specifically, we’re talking about blackwater: Sewage.  And even more particularly, recycling sewage, treating it to the potable level and–gulp–drinking it again. Read more about Effluent Communities: Why Drought Will Mean Learning to Drinking Treated Sewage »

The Good, The Bad and The Robot: Experts Are Trying to Make Machines Be “Moral”

Good vs. bad. Right vs. wrong. Human beings begin to learn the difference before we learn to speak—and thankfully so. We owe much of our success as a species to our capacity for moral reasoning. It’s the glue that holds human social groups together, the key to our fraught but effective ability to cooperate. We are (most believe) the lone moral agents on planet Earth—but this may not last. The day may come soon when we are forced to share this status with a new kind of being, one whose intelligence is of our own design. Read more about The Good, The Bad and The Robot: Experts Are Trying to Make Machines Be "Moral" »

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