Homes and buildings chilled without air conditioners. Car interiors that don’t heat up in the summer sun. Tapping the frigid expanses of outer space to cool the planet. Science fiction, you say? Well, maybe not any more.
A team of researchers at Stanford has designed an entirely new form of cooling structure that cools even when the sun is shining. Such a structure could vastly improve the daylight cooling of buildings, cars and other structures by reflecting sunlight back into the chilly vacuum of space.
Some engineers are dusting off an old idea for storing energy—using electricity to liquefy air by cooling it down to nearly 200 °C below zero. When power is needed, the liquefied air is allowed to warm up and expand to drive a steam turbine and generator.
The concept is being evaluated by a handful of companies that produce liquefied nitrogen as a way to store energy from intermittent renewable energy sources. Liquefied air might also be used to drive pistons in the engines of low-emission vehicles.
IBM’s question-answering Watson supercomputer is building quite the résumé. First it won a much-publicized showdownagainst the two greatest Jeopardy! champions of all time, then it went to medical school and emerged as a budding oncologist. Now Watson has a new job–as a customer-service agent with the mostest. The help desk is a bit of a step down from fighting cancer, but IBM is nothing if not pragmatic. U.S. organizations spend $112 billion on call center labor and software, yet half of the 270 billion customer-service calls go unresolved each year, presenting a fairly sizable opening for an enhanced cognitive computer. Let’s face it: Rare is the occasion when you a) reach a live person and b) they know what they’re talking about. Why not give silicon a chance?
Watson is learning fast
Computers aren’t just getting better, they’re getting smarter. Sixteen years ago, a software program beat the reigning chess champion. IBM had spent seven years creating it, and it was time well spent. The victory got the world’s attention and proved that superior computation skills could at least sometimes add up to superior performance.
Two years ago, IBM’s Watson software beat the world’s two best players in the television game show “Jeopardy!” Although “Jeopardy!” is a test of trivia, the victory was anything but trivial. It showed how well artificial intelligence researchers could process ordinary language and extract knowledge from unstructured databases.
Since then, Watson has been put to work learning something a lot less trivial—medical diagnosis. But that’s still a very limited domain—in fact, it’s restricted to cancer diagnoses so far.
But IBM is also looking to the long term. It has given one of the world’s leading AI researchers, at a leading university for AI, an open-ended three-year charter to make Watson smarter.
Against all probability, a device that purports to use cold fusion to generate vast amounts of power has been verified by a panel of independent scientists. The research paper, which hasn’t yet undergone peer review, seems to confirm both the existence of cold fusion, and its potency: The cold fusion device being tested has roughly 10,000 times the energy density and 1,000 times the power density of gasoline. Even allowing for a massively conservative margin of error, the scientists say that the cold fusion device they tested is 10 times more powerful than gasoline — which is currently the best fuel readily available to mankind.
The device being tested, called by Energy Catalyzer (E-Cat for short), was created by Andrea Rossi. Rossi has been claiming for the past two years that he had finally cracked cold fusion, but much to the chagrin of the scientific community he hasn’t allowed anyone to independently analyze the device — until now. While it sounds like the scientists had a fairly free rein while testing the E-Cat, we should stress that they still don’t know exactly what’s going on inside the sealed steel cylinder reactor. Still, the seven scientists, all from good European universities, obviously felt confident enough with their findings to publish the research paper.
Robots began replacing human brawn long ago—now they’re poised to replace human brains. Moshe Vardi, a computer science professor at Rice University, thinks that by 2045 artificially intelligent machines may be capable of “if not any work that humans can do, then, at least, a very significant fraction of the work that humans can do.”
So, he asks, what then will humans do?
As we begin to scratch at the basic workings of life, we’ll also inevitably come up against the mechanics of death. Real life extension science is on the horizon, and we should have a belief in place about how to approach these areas of science, because progress is not going to wait while we grapple with imponderables.
Some believe in a utopian future, in which humans can transcend their physical limitations with the aid of machines. But others think humans will eventually relinquish most of their abilities and gradually become absorbed into artificial intelligence (AI)-based organisms, much like the energy making machinery in our own cells.