Author Archive

HYSTERIA ALERT: Human Blood Still Has More Alcohol than Soda

Thursday, June 28th, 2012


The UK’s Daily Mail is breathlessly reporting that leading soft drinks including Coca-Cola and Pepsi contain trace amounts of alcohol. What ramifications should this have for teetotallers and people who abstain for drinking for religious reasons? Um, none.

While the Daily Mail points out that the soft drinks contain about .001 percent alcohol, they forgot to mention that your body naturally already has about .004 percent alcohol. This is because those wonderful bacteria that live in our gut and help us digest food and live, sometimes like to ferment (Endogenous ethanol production).

The article was taken from a French publication called ‘60 Million Consumers’ so we can’t tell if they missed that important detail either.

So to put it in simple terms, since Coca-Cola has less alcohol than your bloodstream, assuming that it all went to your blood (instead of getting digested, which is what happens) .001 is less than .004 – so drinking cola will actually lower your body’s natural level of alcohol. It makes you less alcoholic.

If you’re looking to get drunk off cola, you’d be better of drinking human blood. Um, forget we said that. Do not drink human blood.

People will likely ignore this. We’ll get more soda hysteria. Orange juice has more sugar and dissolves teeth too (and fangs).

Check out the Straight Dope if this naturally produced alcohol can get you buzzed…

Minority Dissent: How Wired Missed the Precogged Future that Wasn’t

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

Wired magazine is celebrating the ten year anniversary of the Steven Spielberg film MINORITY REPORT in an article that talks about the secret summit where technologists were invited to imagine the world of 2080 (revised to 2050 for the film) as well as a piece that covers all of the ideas MINORITY REPORT introduced that now have become a reality. There’s only one problem, for avid futurists, MINORITY REPORT was already mired in the past. The film didn’t so much predict the future as much as retread ideas that had been around in the 60’s several of which were already outdated by the release.

In a section that measured up 10 key technologies from the film, the Wired staff judged how accurate the predictions were. They failed to mention how a number of the technologies they credited to the “idea summit” were already in use. For some technologies they dismissed they seemed to have entirely missed current areas of research. Here’s a look at Wired’s list and our thoughts:

Iris recognition: Retina scanning, the first biometric security measure using the eye was commercially available in 1981. This method was first discussed in the 1930’s. More advanced iris scanning was in practical use before the release of the film.

Self-driving cars: The vehicles in MINORITY REPORT used a specially built highways system because they couldn’t imagine cars ever being able to drive themselves on the roads and highways we use today. While the futurists were locked away in their hotel conference room deciding this, hundreds of miles to the north, the nascent Google was already laying the groundwork for a technological revolution that would see robotic cars drive the California highway less than a decade later.

Spiderbots: Robots built like spiders were already available in toy stores. Keen watchers of Return of the Jedi remember one lurking around Jabba’s palace. The Michael Crichton directed film RUNAWAY featured hundreds of them trying to kill future cop Tom Selleck.

Predictive policing: A core idea of the story by Philip K. Dick, this concept has been around for decades. Law enforcement agencies have been using computer modeling for years to try to predict and apply resources to trouble spots. Psychic policing always has been and will be a fantasy. Predicting crime and stopping it before it happens is child’s play anyhow; real cops use time travel to go back and fix things after they happened.

Holograms: Holograms have been a staple of science fiction forever. In Wired’s run down, Neil Gershenfeld of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms makes the statement, “The problem with Star Wars-style 3-D projected in mid-air is that the physics don’t work.” Which physics do you speak of? Better not tell these researchers here who have managed to do this feat by using lasers to generate plasma excitations in free floating oxygen and nitrogen molecules. Other researchers are experimenting with water jets and dust particles suspended by sound.

Sick sticks: In MINORITY REPORT cops could tap you with a baton that made you lose your lunch. Stun wands, sonic disruptors and fields were already either in use or being tested by the military long before MINORITY REPORT. The idea of a weapon that made you lose bodily control actually goes as far back as Tesla.

Personalized billboards: We were already being bombarded with personalized ads on the web via tracking cookies since 1996. Max Headroom explored the impact of this in 1987.

Gestural interfaces: Wired hailed the hand waving interaction of Tom Cruise’s with the police computer as futuristic. For anybody that remembers the Nintendo Power Glove, it was an artifact from the past (1990 to be exact). By the time MINORITY REPORT was released, researchers were already moving away from the idea of using gloves, to actual visual imaging systems that could recognize what your hands are doing. 20 million Microsoft Kinects later, the glow gloves scene from MINORITY REPORT is as laughable as a brick phone or a pager.

E-Newspapers: Digital paper was a laboratory demo in the 1990’s and a much theorized technology before then. While Wired says this could hit the mainstream in the next five years, they must have missed the issue of Esquire 4 years ago that featured this on the cover. The real question is in the iPad age, will we ever go back to traditional-sized newspapers when e-paper becomes dirt cheap? Stanley Kubrick looked a lot more prescient in 1968 than the futurists of MINORITY REPORT thirty years later.

Jetpacks: Wired writes off the jetpacks of MINORITY REPORT as implausible tech included for cinematic purposes. We’re going to take Spielberg’s side on this one. Since the release of MINORITY REPORT we’ve found that the military has made use of jet-assisted bat suits and we’ve seen daredevils use personal rocket propulsion to perform stunts every bit as exhilarating as what was in the film. For anyone saying don’t hold your breath for a practical jetpack, the same could have been said for remote controlled drones controlled by your phone (now available in toy stores) or rockets that land themselves (now being tested).

EXCLUSIVE: SpaceX Dragon Splashdown Pic!

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

Now we know what secret cargo SpaceX had included…

ALIEN Anthology Blu-Ray on Sale at Amazon

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012


What better way to support Weird Things and get ready for Prometheus than by watching the original Alien flicks in pristine Blu-Ray quality? This collection includes all four of the series along with extensive behind the scenes features. Get it now for just $29.95

(Using this Amazon Associate link helps support Weird Things.)

SpaceX Signs Up First Customer for World’s Most Powerful Rocket

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

SpaceX and Intellisat, the world’s largest provider of satellite services, have issued a press release announcing that Intellisat has signed up to be the first customer for SpaceX’s next generation rocket, the Falcon Heavy. The most powerful rocket in the world (capable of delivering 117,000 pounds to low earth orbit) and the largest since the Saturn V rockets, the Falcon Heavy is expected to take flight next year.

The previous attempt at trying to build the world’s most powerful rocket was the Soviet Union’s Energia. On its first mission the rocket failed to get the payload to orbit. The second, carrying the Soviet Space Shuttle variation, the Buran, reached orbit, but actual payload capacity was a third less than the Falcon Heavy’s planned capacity.

Consisting of three modified Falcon 9 cores, the Falcon Heavy involves an innovative fuel strategy that’s never been attempted before in this kind of rocket. As the rocket gains altitude, the two outer cores will fuel the main core’s engines, so when separation occurs, the primary stage will be fully fueled and carrying no dead-weight.

Based upon proven Falcon 9 technology, the Falcon Heavy brings about radically lower launch costs of approximately $1,000 per pound, where previous cost to low earth orbit (LEO) was around $10,000 and as much as $30,000 onboard the Space Shuttle when you factor in the total program cost.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has said a manned lunar mission on the scale of the Apollo would be capable with two launches using the Falcon Heavy. SpaceX has also proposed using a Falcon Heavy and a modified Dragon capsule to perform an unmanned Mars mission called Red Dragon, for about $450 million – oddly enough the budget and marketing cost of the film John Carter (of Mars).

While SpaceX is preparing the Falcon Heavy, engineers and scientists at their McGregor, Texas test facility will continue developing the technology for their long range plan of making a full reusable Falcon Heavy rocket by the end of this decade. Accomplishing this could bring launch costs to under $10 per pound. For more on the impact of that, check out our article Space Boom.

Andrew Mayne is a science fiction and thriller author. His website can be found at AndrewMayneBooks.com

Space Boom

Monday, May 28th, 2012

By the end of this decade we could well be on our way to the largest period of growth in human history. The global economy would dramatically increase and the overall wealth of the planet will skyrocket. The people at the lowest end of the economy will see the largest changes as they go from subsistence living to a modern middle class lifestyle made possible by this leap.

This future could be wildly off target, or it could be happening right now on a launchpad outside of McGregor, Texas. The key to this rapid growth is a simple idea. Impractical, some say impossible, it’s considered by some as far fetched as free energy or transmuting lead into gold.

But it’s not an idea that violates any laws of physics; only what we’ve done before. For a generation that’s seen the world wired electronically, watched room sized-computers shrink to devices that fit on your wrist and place face to face video calls around the planet for free, it’s a hurdle like any other, one that will take smarts, perseverance and a willingness to ignore the naysayers and do what hasn’t been done before.

The reusable rocket
It’s a term we’ve heard before. The Space Shuttle was initially touted as ‘reusable’, when in fact only parts of it were. The large tank, the solid rocket boosters, the components responsible for most of the heavy lifting aside from the shuttle’s engines, were either burned up in the atmosphere or dropped into the ocean where salt water could corrode the parts that weren’t damaged on impact. At a $1.5 billion per launch, the shuttle hardly met the economics of reusable. It’s true cost per pound to orbit was $28,000.

A truly reusable rocket, like the kind Elon Musk and SpaceX is trying to build, can be used a 1,000 times or more. The main expense is fuel. Giving that a Falcon 9 uses only about $200,000 of fuel per launch (versus the $260,000 it costs to send a 737 around the world), expensing that capital cost over 1,000 launches ($60 million a rocket), gives you a capital expenditure of just $60,000 per launch. Round that up to $300,000 and your cost to orbit is under $15 per pound. That’s 2,000 times less than the cost on the shuttle.

In the economics of space travel, $1,000 per pound to low earth orbit was long considered the magic number where incredible economic opportunities become possible. If Elon Musk has his way and makes his even larger rocket, the Falcon Heavy, reusable, we’ll be looking at $10 per pound – less than it costs to send something cross country via FedEx.

It’s crazy. It’s insane. It’s foolish talk. And yet the world just watched astronauts on the International Space Station set foot aboard a spaceship (the first private spacecraft ever) built by people everyone was calling crazy, insane and foolish.

Now they want to build bigger rockets and think it’s possible to bring internet-like growth to the cost of going into space. I think they’ve proved they’re serious and capable. If anyone can make it happen, it’s SpaceX.

Where’s the boom?
So we can put people and satellites in space at a fraction of the cost before…what’s the big deal? What does the mean for us earthbound mortals? Everything.

Forget about space tourism, that’s low hanging fruit. In the scheme of industries, it’s only a step above renting out cabanas to cruise ship passengers. The biggest sectors of our economy aside from services and manufacturing are energy, communications and materials.

Opening up the frontier of space will change all of those radically.

First: Communications
Want more bandwidth? Want to make a clear phone call that doesn’t drop? Want to watch 4k movies on your iPhone while you’re hiking in the outback? Better yet, want the citizens of Syria and Iran to have free access to communications their governments can’t block?

Build more satellites. Lots of them. At $10 per pound, we’ll be able to blanket the planet in always-on high-speed internet access. Telecommunications companies will have to compete with underfunded rivals. Two girls in a garage could re-invent communications.

High school kids can build a communications satellite today. Unfortunately you can’t get it into space on a paper route budget (firstly, because newspapers are extinct). At a cost rivalling FedEx rates, this becomes a reality.

As bandwidth grows, so will our demand for more of it. Most of the planet is still waiting for smartphones with mere Edge-like speeds. The first-world will find all sorts of ways to push the bandwidth limits and keep the communications industry a high-profit business. We won’t be afraid to turn our phones on when we travel to other countries and will find ways to justify more bandwidth.

Second: Materials
If the dreamers at Planetary Resources have it right and some of those near earth asteroids are filled with rare metals, we could be facing an unheard of age of abundance. While finding gold in large quantities would seem like the goal, the real purpose of this mineral exploration is to find the kind of metals that have a far greater practical value than serving as bling.

The platinum group metals Planetary Resources think may abound on asteroids are some of the most import and rare kinds of materials we use in building everything from fuel cells to solar panels. Chief among them: Platinum.

Platinum costs about $1,500 per ounce. It’s the most expensive part of a fuel cell. The reason electric cars are so expensive? The battery. An abundance of platinum group metals could reduce the cost to a few cents on the dollar.

Cheap platinum would radically change the way we consume energy. Instead of getting your power off the grid, you’d plug into a fuel cell in your garage that you recycled every few months or so. For the part of the world that doesn’t have much of a grid, this is a life-changing possibility. Simple things like cheap air-conditioning could save millions of lives a year from malaria.

Third: Energy
Forget covering Arizona with solar cells. Let’s build an armada of them in space. A solar collector in earth orbit has sunlight 24 hours a day, never has to worry about clouds and runs at 144% efficiency compared to being on earth.

This would be the cleanest form of energy on or off our world.

At $10 per pound to orbit, it’s actually cheaper than what it costs to build on earth when you factor in all the ancillary costs from land leases, environmental impact and legal hurdles.

Getting that power back down to earth without creating a space beam weapon that could incinerate cities will be a challenge, but one we’ve already taken steps towards solving. It could be decades before we’re getting practical amounts of power from space. Yet it takes decades now to build a nuclear power plant or erect a wind turbine.

Abundant solar power in space also means we can use it in orbit for things like cracking water (from asteroids) into hydrogen and oxygen. Going even more out there, lots of abundant energy could one day lead to a practical means for producing antimatter – the most efficient means of containing energy and the kind of power that could take you to the other planets in days, not months and years.

The long boom
As manufacturing moves more to rapid prototyping-style machines and becomes more of a commodity with falling prices, outside the service industry; communications, raw materials and energy are the largest parts of the global economy (agriculture is less than 4%).

To launch and service all those satellites, solar stations and asteroid mining ships, we’ll need a whole new industry. While robotics will do a lot of that work, you still need humans doing quality control and the jobs we don’t have machines for just yet.

We’ll see new companies based on doing things like providing logistics support to all these different industries, building replacement parts in orbit, training spaceworkers and a thousand other things that go with a boom.

Cheap access to space also means huge space stations, space yachts, space mansions and a whole lot of things you can do in space we never imagined on earth.

Earth orbit is just the start, but even before we set foot on Mars, there’s an entire space industry waiting to happen that goes way beyond novelty vacations for the mega-rich. We’ll thrive as an interplanetary species when exploiting the resources of space is a practical way of surviving.

The only practical limit is the number of people we can train in high-tech jobs to make this possible. To solve this problem, smart people need to be having more kids and we need to find ways to help the rest of the planet get access to better educational resources.

The near future
The exciting part is that we could know within just a few years, maybe before even before we see book five of Game of Thrones on television (or the third film in the new Spider-Man series shows on screens) if this is possible.

As we speak, a group of SpaceX engineers are in Texas test firing rockets, examining landing systems and checking off days on their calendar, bringing us closer to finding out if this is a pipe dream that’s still decades away, or something that will become a reality very soon.

This final photo is their reusable test rocket on the launch pad at their test facility in Texas. See that little line to the right? That’s the SpaceX Dragon and the ISS in orbit overhead.

It’s one thing to dream about the stars, it’s another to go to work and look up and see where you’ve been and know where you’re going next.

Andrew Mayne is a science fiction and thriller author. His website can be found at AndrewMayneBooks.com

Watch as Humans Step Aboard the First Private Spacecraft – In Space

Saturday, May 26th, 2012

For the first time in history, humans stepped aboard a privately developed spacecraft in space. Watch as the ISS astronauts open the hatch and inspect SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft:

What’s Next for SpaceX

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

This morning the world woke up to find out what the rest of us stayed up and watched happen: SpaceX launched their second spacecraft into orbit on a first of its kind mission to the International Space Station. The next few days involve more technical challenges. In a procedure akin to shooting a missile going 22,000 MPH into a trajectory with the ISS; SpaceX will try to pull off a rare feat capable of only a couple nations.

Meanwhile, what’s next for SpaceX?

Things are only getting started. Elon Musk has proposed an incredibly ambitious program for his company which is barely ten years old.

FALCON HEAVY

While SpaceX continues cargo flights to the ISS and launching satellites, next up is the testing and launch of the Falcon Heavy. SpaceX isn’t content with just building a replacement system for getting into space, they want to push the envelope even further.

Falcon Heavy is a rocket with 27 Merlin rocket engines (versus the Falcon 9’s nine). Slated to start testing later this year, Falcon 9 will be the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V’s that took us to the moon.

That’s this year.

The most powerful rocket in the world.

It’s the kind of rocket you’d use to send people to Mars.

Let me repeat, THEY PLAN ON TESTING IT THIS YEAR.

Even if it takes another year or two to get this up, anybody wants to to see what a mission to Mars will look like can take a trip like Justin Young and I did last night and watch SpaceX light the candle. This time on 27 Merlins instead of nine.

Check out an animation of this bad boy.

Falcon Heavy press conference

DRAGON CREW CAPSULE

SpaceX is building a Mars capable spaceship today. The bird flying over our heads right now is a proof of concept of a lot of the technologies that will go into making that happen. The most important system is safety.

To make the Dragon spacecraft the safest crewed space vehicle in the world, they need to build an escape system – something the Space Shuttle never had.

The Dragon will have built-in thrusters that will allow the spaceship to separate from the second and third stage in an emergency and land via parachute or rocket power. This rocket-powered launch would even allow the Dragon to land from orbit back on the launch pad without a parachute.

That’s crazy Buck Rogers technology, but that’s the plan. In researching the feasibility of this, Elon Musk and the SpaceX team came up with the most crazy idea yet:

A FULLY REUSABLE SPACECRAFT

Instead of trying to pull your rockets out of the sea and rebuild them, why not have them land back on the launch pad. While companies like Blue Origin are trying to build a single-stage to orbit system, SpaceX is developing a far more fuel efficient system that would allow each stage to land by itself.

A fully reusable rocket would take off and separate into two stages and a spacecraft. Each one would then use rocket thrusters to land back on the launch pad where they’d be inspected and refueled.

This is the space age version of passenger jets. SpaceX is working on this right now. Not ‘someday’, not in ‘the future’. Engineers are trying to solve these problems as we speak. The systems that go into making the Dragon crew-capable lead into the systems that will allow you to let your primary stage land back on the platform.

The cost savings are incredible. The Shuttle cost from $10-20,000 per pound. Falcon 9 costs about $2,300. A reusable craft takes this below $100. From $10,000 per pound to $100 in a decade. It could even go lower. Cheaper than a space elevator. Now that’s crazy talk.

You can see SpaceX’s vision for this in the animation. You can go outside and look up at the first step towards this right now.

The future is happening.

Elon Musk explaining reusable rockets

Weird Things LIVE at the Dragon Launch

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

Justin Robert Young and Andrew Mayne at the SpaceX launch of the Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station.

It was EPIC and AWESOME.

How badly did you want to be Iron Man when you were a kid?

Friday, May 18th, 2012

Andrew Mayne and his brother Jamie are Iron Man (men)

I wanted to be Iron Man so bad when I was a kid, my hair smelled like Folger’s Crystals from wearing a coffee can on my head.

Not a joke.

I cut off the end of a tennis ball can, put a dish glove on it and made my own slapdash armor. You have to understand, this wasn’t a costume, in my demented little mind, I WAS MAKING MY OWN ARMOR.

I was obsessed with robots. I’d build little walking things from broken toys and Tupperware containers. When I saw my first Iron Man comic, my head exploded. Dude, you could BE A ROBOT.

In the above photo, my brother and I are dressed up as hybrid Iron Man/C3PO/R2-D2 characters. My dad made the costumes from popcorn tins, life vests, Legos and plenty of silver tape. If you wonder where my creativity comes from; look no further than my dad. He’s always been that awesome.

Before I decided to become a magician, back then I was a little inventor. My goal in life was to go to MIT. Why? Because that’s where Tony Stark went to school.

Life turned out differently. I got into magic, discovered other science heroes like Doctor Who, but I’d be lying if I don’t get a little nostalgic every time I see a coffee can and wonder what could have been…

For more from Andrew Mayne, visit his website: AndrewMayneBooks.com

Google’s Project Glass Augmented Reality is Missing Something: Augmented Reality

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

GOOGLE PROJECT GLASS LOOKS AS PROMISING AS MICROSOFT’S VISION OF THE TABLET PC IN 2001…

Google has only released one video and little else on their project for bringing augmented reality to the masses, so it’s hard to cast aspersions on what’s the most vapory of vaporware. That said, I’ll pick apart the video; in that even with the use of After Effects and the potential to show us anything, their vision of the future seems rather timid.

Like the silly Nintendo Power Glove in Minority Report (far less impressive than Microsoft’s Kinect and ideas in the labs when the movie was made), we get a vision of the future that feels dated before it happens.

The future is not run on Nintendo Power Gloves...

Google’s glasses appear to just be a screen in front of your face with eye tracking. And I don’t mean that in the ‘iPhone is just a screen you touch’, way. It feels like Microsoft’s attempt at tablets in the early 2000’s. They figured your finger would just be a pointing device for Windows. Substitute ‘eye’ for ‘finger’ here and you get a shortsighted vision of the potential for this technology.

Google’s Glass doesn’t do anything different than what we do now. The screen is just in a different place. Think of how the iPad changed the way we interact with software or how Microsoft’s Kinect changed gaming. Augmented Reality could be bigger than all of this.

Touch interfaces took off when you realized that the medium had changed. Google’s Glass doesn’t feel that way. I don’t think they get their medium. My first case in point is the map feature:

How does Google envision using augmented reality to show us a map? They just float a regular map in front of you. Why not lay the map over on your field of view and actually show you a path to follow?

Second, let’s look at the trip to the book store. Obviously, Google doesn’t want to scare off brick and mortar partners with flashing deals to buy the book elsewhere. But why not use their already solid image recognition technology to hover reviews of the book or show us augmented publisher information. The same for the concert poster. Make the thing move. Show us what a connected world looks like.

Third, the apps were disappointing. When the girlfriend calls, why not make it look like she’s on the top of the building with him? Don’t just overlay reality, blend it. Why not create artificial elements in real space?

Fourth, show us virtual objects. What’s a virtual ebook look like to read or a magazine? I’d love to see what Google thinks the future of virtual items will be like with augmented reality. I have to image it’s more than a transparent screen.

That said, I’m excited that Google is taking the initiative on this. I’ll leave them with the words of Tom Hardy’s Eames in Inception, “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”

For good time’s sake:

Helen Mirren as Doctor Who HELL YES [FACT]

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011
skitched-20111222-233321.jpg

So some mouth-breather on this site decided to pour cold water on the idea of Helen Mirren playing Doctor Who. We’ll forget that this person up until recently called the Doctor “Dr. Who” and stick to the facts.

“It’s a gimmick”
Yes? And the problem is? If anything, this series needs, besides, actual better writing, is some fresh ideas and a new approach. Writing for Mirren could provide just that.

“It’s an unnecessary complication for an already too complicated premise”
What’s complicated about a Time Lord changing into a woman? This is nowhere near as big of a complication as time travel. Partly because it’s, you know, real. People switching genders is so old hat, it hardly counts as science fiction.

“It’s a young role”
Let’s get past the ageist and sexist comment and look at exhibit A .

Jet Man Flying with Jets

Monday, November 28th, 2011

Our favorite crazy Swiss aeronaut, Yves Rossy, was at it again. This time flying in formation with two jets. How much more bad ass does it get?

Sources tell us that shortly after he landed, Nick Fury arrived on the scene to recruit him for some special initiative.

Steve Jobs Changed the World (Again) The Day Before He Died

Thursday, October 6th, 2011

Steve Jobs wasn’t just a man with great vision and instincts, he was a man that bet big on people, teams and concepts he believed in. Apple computers exist because Steve saw the potential in his friend Steve Wozniak’s hobbled together motherboard. The graphical user interface exists because Steve realized this academic notion that nobody knew what to do with was something that would make computers more personal, more accessible. He bet big on a couple of PhD’s and a fired Disney animator and shepherded Pixar for over a decade so it could eventually change entertainment and re-ignite the magic of storytelling.

At the Apple announcement the day before Steve Jobs passed away, we got another one of Steve Jobs’s visions of the future, a final legacy that will change everything, all over again. Like all his other visions, it was dismissed as obvious, incremental or no big deal. A year from now may prove otherwise.

From the beginning Steve Jobs has been dedicated to changing the way we interact with computers, making them more personal. Early Macs had text to speech functionality and primitive speech recognition. Both of these technologies have matured slowly over the last two decades. Neither in a groundbreaking moment. Part of the problem is that converting human speech into text is only a small part of the challenge.

Software and systems like Nuance, Vlingo, Google Voice Recognition and others have come a long way. But they still needed that magic touch to make them into practical alternatives. To do that you need three things: A powerful engine that can convert speech into text. Artificially intelligent software that can understand all the different ways you can phrase something and learn what you mean. And an over-arching idea on how it comes together and what it’s supposed to do for real people.

Watch the demonstration of the Siri voice assistant and you’ll see how Jobs and Apple saw beyond the present state of things and combined all three. Apple acquired the company and talent behind Siri because Steve Jobs recognized a team that got the way of the future. It wasn’t speech recognition. It was human understanding.

Siri is an AI system that learns things like an intelligent person. If you tell it “My mother’s name is Patricia”, it will remember that. When you tell it next time to “Send an email to my mom”, Siri knows that the “Patricia” in your contact book is who you meant when you say “mom”.

Speech recognition everywhere else is literal. It makes people bend to the way computers do things. You have to phrase things a certain way and be very specific. This has always been the antithesis of computing for Jobs. He believed that computing should conform to people.

Siri is built upon a lot of powerful technologies and concepts. Pundits who just saw it as another speech recognition platform totally missed the bigger picture. It’s a very big idea. If you ask it a question it doesn’t just do a Google search, it uses computational systems like WolframAlpha. Want to know the current distance to Mars for your kid’s homework? Siri will give you the actual answer and not just a search result that’s outdated and wrong.

A year from now voice interaction is going to be much more commonplace. It’ll go from just being text to speech and literal instructions, to a much more natural way to interact with our devices. Google’s impressive technology will continue to evolve. Apple’s Siri will get smarter. Other companies will continue to come up with brilliant contributions. iPhones, Androids and other devices will get better and better.

We’re about to see a paradigm shift in computing. All of the elements were there before. Natural language processing, speech recognition, AI. So was the GUI and mouse, the touchscreen, the MP3 player, the smartphone and the tablet. What they needed was someone to show us how to look at them and how to make them fit into everyday life so much so they become almost invisible.

Steve Jobs has always worked to put the hardware and the machine in the background. Siri is the next evolution of that goal. When you see the promotional video for the technology, it doesn’t feature people interacting with a piece of hardware, it’s merely a medium. It shows us people using technology in the most natural way possible, simply telling it what they need it to do. The last part of the video is the most touching. We see a young blind girl reading a Braille book and using her iPhone – a device she can’t even see – to send messages, interact and communicate with the rest of the world, the same as anyone else would. This is Steve Jobs legacy. This is how he changed the world, again.

Steve may passed away, but we’re only beginning to understand how big of a dent he kicked in the universe.

[More on Siri at Apple.com]

SpaceX Announces Radically Cheaper Spaceflight

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

At a National Press Club luncheon today, Elon Musk, head of SpaceX announced plans for a reusable rocket that could dramatically lower the cost of going into space by a factor of 100. By amortizing the hardware costs over a lifespan of 1,000 launches, the capital costs per launch would be $50,000 (plus $200,000 in fuels costs and support). He compares the goal of the rocket to achieve the same level of reliability as a 747.

SpaceX envisions a three stage rocket where each stage returns to Earth via powered flight, as opposed to crashing into the ocean or burning up in the atmosphere.

In a speech that outlaid his goal of seeing humanity becoming an interplanetary species, he explained the need for this technology to help humanity make a permanent settlement on Mars. Musk suggested the cost of such a trip could eventually fall to the price of an ‘average California home’.

SpaceX

Click the image below for an awesome animation of their space flight mission profiles:

Listen now

 

SpaceX Reveals Images of Next Generation Spacecraft

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Along with announcement for an Elon Musk appearance at the National Press Club, SpaceX revealed new conceptual images laying out their vision for the future of spaceflight.

One image gives us our first look at what is probably the ‘Grasshopper’ reusable vertical take-off and landing rocket that SpaceX sought permission from the FAA to test at their McGregor field launch facility.

For more images, including the Dragon capsule doing a landing, check out the SpaceX page.