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Will 'swap shops' boost electric vehicle ownership?

Some electric car companies have begun to change their ownership models. The French automaker Renault, for example, has reduced its prices under a model that has drivers buy the car, but rent the battery separately. The idea of renting out an electric battery separately has inspired an Israeli company, called Better Place, to start building battery swap stations. Although it will cost consumers more per year, the drivers are guaranteed a good battery all the time. They can automatically get a replacement and avoid the need to recharge, in about the same time it takes to fill up with a tank of gas. The company is building a network of such stations in Israel, Denmark, and later this year in Australia.

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In the near future, will we see a widespread commercial use of autonomous vehicles?

Last week, Google released a video that demonstrated the potential of its self-driving car. The video showed a legally blind man, who after taking the driver seat of one of Google's robotic cars, maneuvered from his home, through neighborhoods, and into a commercial center (including a local Taco Bell!). The car, which features radar, lasers, and cameras, allowed the man to take a ride without touching the steering wheel or pedals.

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Would you enjoy a 'digital detox?'

 A recent event called the "Day of Unplugging" kicked off last week, challenging people to go without their cell phones and technology for 24 hours. The "digital detox" idea encourages everyone to step away from their computers and smartphones. Some people are opposed to the idea and see no need to unplug from anything, while others find the event to be a good way to go outside, nurture one's health, and appreciate the silence.

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Will we ever accept computers as human?

Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and futurist, said to more than 3,000 attendees at the South by Southwest Interactive conference last week: "We are a human-machine civilization. Everybody has been enhanced with computer technology," noting how smartphones and other mobile devices and technologies have become a part of who we are. He added, "If we can convince people that computers have complexity of thought and nuance ... we'll come to accept them as human."

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When it comes to finding the truth, can technology surpass humans?

In a study of 40 videotaped conversations, an automated system developed by University at Buffalo researchers correctly identified whether interview subjects were lying or telling the truth 82.5 percent of the time. The automated system tracks eye movement. The system employs a statistical technique to model how people moved their eyes in two distinct situations: during regular conversation and while fielding a question designed to prompt a lie. Though the study’s sample size was too small for the research to be statistically significant, the findings, according to the research team, suggest that computers may be able to learn enough about a person's behavior in a short time to perform a task that challenges even experienced investigators.

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Are there risks in 'hacking' our own biology?

Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (TDCS), a deep brain stimulation technique, uses electrodes to direct tiny painless currents across the brain. The currents are thought to improve the firing of neurons and the forming of connections that enable learning. The technique has shown potential in strengthening language skills, math ability, and even memory. A recent Oxford paper, however, argues that the risks of TDCS method must be more carefully considered before the research resumes. Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation joins a group of other promising technologies aimed to enhance cognition, including generic engineering and brain-to-computer interfacing. Some skeptics say these types of techniques are perhaps unfair and go against human nature.

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The Future of Quantum Computing

Using a single phosphorus atom embedded in a silicon crystal, physicists have built a working transistor, laying the groundwork for a quantum computer that is smaller than today's silicon-based machines, and may one day function in nanoscale environments. Quantum computers may make it possible to quickly simulate molecular structures, a promising advance for designing new drugs and other materials. While some say that the research is a major step toward a functioning quantum computing system, others are uncertain if a quantum computer will be harnessed for useful tasks. The physicists’ work also demonstrated fundamental limits that today's computers would be able to shrink to.

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