The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Aug. 28 2014 8:12 PM

Google Is Building Self-Flying Planes

Google has been privately working for two years to build self-flying vehicles, the company revealed Thursday evening. Or, to use a less crazy-sounding name: drones.

Called “project wing,” the self-flying vehicles program is the latest project from Google X, the secretive skunkworks responsible for the company’s self-driving cars, wi-fi balloons, and Google Glass, among other things. There have been rumors that Google might have something like this in mind since around the time that Amazon announced its own plan for delivery drones last fall. But this is the first confirmation from the company, and it’s even more ambitious than a lot of us suspected.


“Self-flying vehicles could open up entirely new approaches to moving things around—including options that are faster, cheaper, less wasteful, and more environmentally sensitive than the way we do things today,” spokesman Raymond Gobberg said in an emailed statement. After two years of tinkering, he added, the company has hired a new team lead—drone pioneer David Vos—“to take us from research to product.”

Earlier this month, the team took its research prototypes to Queensland, Australia, for their first test flights, delivering candy bars, dog treats, cattle vaccines, water, radios, and other items to a pair of Australian farmers. (Australia’s government has fewer restrictions than the United States on unmanned commercial aircraft.) Here’s a video of what they look like so far:

Google’s project is reminiscent of Amazon’s stated ambition to build delivery drones that could deliver small products (up to five pounds) to customers within half an hour of their orders. But it could also be more than that. Google X’s press release mentioned future applications ranging from larger cargo routes to emergency-relief deliveries to the ability for people to rent certain items—like, say, a power drill—for only the few minutes that they need them before sending them on their way to the next user.

It’s hard to say at this point which company is further ahead, as both are probably at least a few years away from putting their plans into commercial operation. There remain hurdles both technological and regulatory, along with some obvious safety concerns.

That said, there do seem to be a few differences in the basic design approach even at this early stage. Whereas Amazon has talked of using “octocopters,” which hover via an array of spinning blades, Google’s prototypes are a little more plane-like, with a set of wings designed for “fast forward flight” in addition to rotors for vertical takeoffs and landings.

Below is another image of the prototype drone making a delivery, which come with the caveat that this is “more of a research vehicle than an indication of a final decision or direction,” according to Google X spokesman Ray Gobberg. “As we figure out exactly what our service will deliver and where and why, we will look at a variety of vehicle options (both home-made and off-the-shelf).”

Google Project Wing pictures
This is what the prototype drone looks like when delivering a small package.

Image courtesy of Google X

And here’s Amazon’s official delivery-drone video, for comparison’s sake:

For more on Google’s delivery drones, read this in-depth story by The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal, who was offered an early look at the drones by Google officials. Madrigal concludes that Google’s drones may be about more than just quickly delivering small products. In the long run, Google may be aiming to help shape the future of transportation, both on the ground and in the sky. Madrigal writes: “Taken with the company’s other robotics investments, Google’s corporate posture has become even more ambitious. Google doesn’t just want to organize all the world’s information. Google wants to organize all the world.”

That might sound like a sensational claim, but based on my experience covering Google over the last few years, I don’t think it is. I’ve written previously about Google’s forays into the physical world, including humanoid robots, smart appliances, and high-flying surveillance drones and satellites.

Previously in Slate:

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Aug. 28 2014 1:55 PM

This Story About a Wounded Veteran’s Prosthetic Hand Is Too Crazy to Be True

A fascinating and troubling story about a wounded Army veteran has been circulating on the Web this week. The story, which first appeared in the San Antonio Express-News on Aug. 22, goes like this:

A U.S. Army staff sergeant named Ben Eberle lost his right hand and two legs when he was hit by a makeshift explosive in Afghanistan a few years ago. Through one of the miracles of modern technology, he was able to regain dexterity with a prosthetic hand, which he controlled with the help of an iPod Touch app called i-Limb. But in another terrible misfortune, Eberle lost control of that hand again on Aug. 22 when a thief broke into his pickup and swiped his iPod. Here’s the kicker, as explained by the Express-News’s Alia Malik (italics mine):

While the latest model iPod Touch normally costs about $240, the thief or thieves in this case, if caught, could be charged with felony theft between $20,000 and $100,000, police said.
That's because Eberle's prosthetic hand is programmed to only work with the stolen iPod, and vice versa. Now that the iPod is gone, he said he has to get a new hand and get it reprogrammed with his prosthesis. “That takes a long time,” Eberle said. “It's tedious and it's a lot of work with the hand itself.”
The money will come from the government, but a new hand is worth $75,000, authorities said.

The story, if true, would be galling and poignant on a personal level—a careless thief robbing a brave veteran of his hand for a second time. But it would be even more troubling on a technological level, which is why the story has circulated far beyond San Antonio to outlets like Fox News, the Daily Mail, the Houston Chronicle,, and the influential tech-news hub Slashdot.

Why on Earth would Touch Bionics' $75,000 prosthetic limb be locked to a single mobile device? And does that mean that people all over the world with prosthetics are at risk of losing everything they’ve worked for years to gain if they drop their phone in the toilet or leave it in the back seat of a taxi cab? Here’s how an incredulous Slashdot member with the handle “kdataman” reacted to the story:

I see three possibilities: 1) The article is wrong, possibly to guilt the thief into returning the Ipod. 2) This is an incredibly bad design by Touch Bionics. Why would you make a $70,000 piece of equipment permanently dependent on a specific iPod Touch? iPods do fail or go missing. 3) This is an intentionally bad design to generate revenue. Maybe GM should do this with car keys? "Oops, lost the keys to the corvette. Better buy a new one."

As it turns out, the first possibility appears to be the correct one. Somehow, it seems that hardly any of the dozens of national and international outlets that have run with this story bothered to confirm it with Touch Bionics. At least, that’s what Touch Bionics told me when I contacted them this week.

“I’m afraid the information noted in the San Antonio Express-News is not correct,” said Karen Hakenson, Touch Bionics’ director of global marketing. “If an iPod is lost or stolen, a user does not lose control of their i-Limb hand or require buying a new prosthesis. We offer the my i-Limb app for free on the App Store, which can be downloaded to several compatible devices to help program and change settings within the hand's firmware—all of which can be accessed again upon reconnecting to the app, as it recognizes the hand based on its unique serial number.”

Phew. This makes perfect sense, and should reassure people considering high-tech prosthetic devices of their own. Eberle himself explained in a Facebook post this week that “I do not need a new hand. … It’s not that big of a deal.” He added, apparently referring to either the police or the media, “They just wanted another story about a wounded warrior.”   

That doesn’t mean replacing the app won’t be an annoyance. While he can keep the same hand, it’s possible that he’ll have to reprogram some specific settings on his new device, said a spokesman for the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where Eberle is a patient. Hakenson said Touch Bionics was very sorry to hear that it was lost and plans to send Eberle a replacement iPod Touch for free. 

How did almost everyone get this story wrong? When I called the Express-News reporter, Malik, she was on deadline with other breaking stories but said her recollection was that it was Eberle who thought at the time of the crime that he would need a new prosthetic. Perhaps Eberle himself misunderstood the ramifications of losing his device or was understandably caught up in the frustration of the theft. (I have not been able to reach Eberle for further comment.) Malik told me she recently got an email from Touch Bionics requesting a correction and plans to look into that as soon as she has time.

Regardless, that’s less important to me than the fact that so many other national and international outlets picked up such a fishy-sounding anecdote without bothering to check it out. (The Daily Mail, in a rare instance of actual reporting, did at least take note of Eberle’s Facebook post.) I suspect it’s because the truth takes time to uncover, and often ends up being less conducive to sensational headlines. In an age when Internet media are often criticized for their breathless reporting and uncritical aggregation, it’s a reminder that just because is first reported by a good old-fashioned print newspaper doesn’t mean the facts are ironclad.

Previously in Slate:

Aug. 28 2014 12:54 PM

Singularity or Transhumanism: What Word Should We Use to Discuss the Future?

Singularity. Posthuman. Techno-Optimism, Cyborgism. Humanity+. Immortalist. Machine intelligence. Biohacker. Robotopia. Life extension. Transhumanism.

These are all terms thrown around trying to describe a future in which mind uploading, indefinite lifespans, artificial intelligence, and bionic augmentation may (and I think will) help us to become far more than just human. They are words you hear in a MIT robotics laboratory, or on a launch site of SpaceX, or on Reddit’s Futurology channel. 


This word war is a clash of intellectual ideals. It goes something like this: The singularity people (many at Singularity University) don't like the term transhumanism. Transhumanists don't like posthumanism. Posthumanists don’t like cyborgism. And cyborgism advocates don't like the life extension tag. If you arrange the groups in any order, the same enmity occurs. All sides are wary of others, fearing they might lose ground in bringing the future closer in precisely their way.

While there is overlap, each name represents a unique camp of thought, strategy, and possible historical outcome for the people pushing their vision of the future. Whatever wins out will be the buzzword that both the public and history will embrace as we continue to move into a future rife with uncertainty and risk, one where for the first time in history, the human being may no longer be classified as a mammal.

For much of the last 30 years, the battle of the best futurist buzzword was fought in science fiction literature and television. Star Trek popularized borg—which helped give commonly used cyborg its meaning. Various short stories and novels tell tales of posthuman civilizations.

The last 15 years marked a shift toward nonfiction work and following of celebrity scientists. Ray Kurzweil’s classic The Singularity Is Near put the term singularity prominently on the word battle map. Biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey’s many public appearances touting medical discoveries to conquer human death did the same for life extension science (also called longevity research).

The word transhumanism has also long been in use, pushed by philosophers like Max More, David Pearce, and Nick Bostrom. However, until recently, it remained mostly a cult word, used by smaller futurist associations, tech blogs, and older male academics interested in describing radical technology revolutionizing the human experience. Two years ago, a Google search of the word transhumanism—which literally means beyond human—brought up about 100,000 pages. What a difference a few years makes. Today, the word transhumanism now returns almost 2 million pages on Google. And dozens of large social media groups on Facebook and Google+—consisting of every type of race, age group, sexual orientation, heritage, religion, and nationality—have transhuman in their titles. It’s also the term that I’m backing, even though I’m not sure it will win out.

Why did this happen so quickly? As with the evolution of most movements and their names, there were numerous moving parts. Dan Brown’s international best-seller novel The Inferno introduced millions of people to transhumanism. So have media celebrities as diverse as Joe Rogan, Glenn Beck, and Jason Silva, host of National Geographic’s Brain Games—all three have discussed transhumanism in their work. A larger reason probably was that both the public and media were ready for an impactful, straightforward word to describe the general flavor of technological existence sweeping over the human race. In case you haven’t noticed, the dead live via saline-cooling suspended animation, the handicapped walk via exoskeleton technology, and the deaf hear via brain microchip implants. The age of frequent, life-altering science is now upon us, and transhumanism is the most functional word to describe it.

Even though the words singularity, cyborg, and life extension generate far more hits on Google than transhumanism, they just don’t feel right describing an ideal and accurate vision of the future. Few people are willing to call themselves a Singularitarian—someone who advocates for a technological event that involves a helpful superintelligence. And Cyborgism is just weird, since the public isn't ready to be merged with machines yet. Life extension isn’t bad, but it’s generally limited only to living longer.

Almost by default, transhumanism has become the overwhelming leader of the name rivalry. Around the world, a quickly growing number of people know what transhumanism is and also subscribe to some of it. It has become the go-to futurist term to express how science and technology are upending the human playing field.

Aug. 28 2014 12:18 PM

Of Mice and Mind: Scientists Find They Can Manipulate Mouse Memory

Neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found that they can manipulate the emotional connotation of the memories of mice. Is this, as the New York Times tweeted, “Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless (Mouse) Mind?”

Not exactly. Unlike in the film, the scientists weren’t erasing the negative memories—they were turning them into positive ones.


Here’s how it worked: After labeling neurons in the brains of mice with a light-sensitive protein, scientists identified patterns of neurons activated when mice created a negative or positive memory. The negative memory was created when mice received an electric shock to their meet. A positive one was formed when the male mice got to spend time with a female mouse. (Mice have a lot in common with students at an all-boys boarding school in this way.)

Next, the mice that had first received the electric shock got to spend time with the coveted female mice as scientists used light to activate the earlier negative memory. The result? The negative memory became less negative—the mice were less afraid in the place where they had been shocked. The reverse happened for the mice that first got to spend time around females—they then received a shock “while scientists activated the neurons associated with this positive memory.” And the positive memory became less positive. (The scientists concluded this as the mice “froze more and sniffed less.”)

There is indeed research into the full erasure of memories, but it’s highly ethically and morally contentious. This may be less so. The memories are still there—they’re just felt differently.

Scientists are excited by the potential impact these findings could have on, for example, treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. For now, they only apply to mice, both because conclusions about the human brain cannot necessarily be drawn from experiments on rodents, and also because the techniques used on the mice cannot be performed on people, as they “involve inserting fiber optic wires and injecting a virus containing a protein into the brain.” But scientists are already exploring noninvasive techniques, that humans, too, may experience eternal sunshine of the spotted mind.

Aug. 28 2014 10:17 AM

This Cheap Exoskeleton Lets You Sit Wherever You Want Without a Chair

Exoskeletons help people do amazing things, but a Swiss startup wants to use them for something really simple. The company, Noonee, is developing a “Chairless Chair” so factory workers who have to stand all day can take a quick load off using the exoskeleton they're casually wearing.

Noonee’s design is a low-cost exoskeleton just for your legs that goes into a seated position when you push a button. When it’s not activated, you can walk or run pretty normally, but when you put it in the seated position, the aluminum and carbon fiber frame becomes rigid to support you. And the device itself only weighs about 4.5 pounds. The Chairless Chair is still a prototype, but CNN reports that Audi is planning to offer a pilot to some of its employees in September, and BMW has plans for a similar trial period.


Keith Gunura, the CEO and co-founder of Noonee, told CNN, “The idea came from wanting to sit anywhere and everywhere, and from working in a U.K. packaging factory when I was 17.” The company’s CTO and co-founder Bryan Anastisiades adds that the Chairless Chair has added benefits over regular chairs because it seats people with their backs straight. It’s hard to slouch in an exoskeleton.

Though we’re all trying to move around more, because of evidence that frequent prolonged sitting can cause health problems, there are so many scenarios where having a chair built into your body would be extremely convenient. The next time you’re wearing your Noonee exoskeleton and someone tells you to pop a squat, you’ll be able to pretty literally oblige.

Aug. 27 2014 6:45 PM

Is Anyone Actually Reading Your Tweets? Now You Can Find Out.

You worked so hard on that clever tweet. Did anyone actually read it?

Until now you could only guess based on the number of favorites or retweets it received. That changed on Wednesday, when Twitter announced that it’s opening a feature to all users that allows you to see exactly how many people viewed and engaged with each of your tweets, along with a demographic breakdown of your followers and several other analytic tools.


You can find your own analytics dashboard by clicking here.

The default tab lists your tweets in reverse-chronological order and shows you the number of impressions and engagements. In case you’re not familiar with the lingo, “impressions” means the total number of people who saw your tweet in their feeds. “Engagements,” in this case, refers to the total number of times people clicked on your tweet. That includes clicks on your username, clicks to expand the tweet, and clicks on any attached links, in addition to retweets, favorites, and follows. You can also track your impressions and engagements over time.

The dashboard also includes a second tab called “followers” that shows you the trajectory of your follower count, as well as the gender, interests, and geographic breakdown of your followers.

So what can you learn from your personal analytics tools? I learned, rather unsurprisingly, that mine tend to be men living in coastal U.S. cities who are interested in politics, business, and technology, and who also follow The New Yorker, Wired, and the Economist. I learned that “sports” is nowhere among my followers’ top interests, which might help explain why a bunch of people unfollow me every time I tweet about them. And I learned, as Alex Howard has also pointed out, that tweets with photos attached tend to do better than text-only tweets. This one, for instance, got about 100 times more impressions than my average tweet:

Twitter how many people read your tweet
Click on an individual tweet to see just what kinds of engagements it received.

Screenshot / Twitter Analytics

This is the sort of data that Twitter and other social networks have historically made available only to their advertising clients. Twitter is among the first to extend its analytics tools to the general public. This feature has been a while in coming: I first reported that Twitter was experimenting with it back in June 2013.

For most people, this probably isn’t particularly actionable information. Still, it’s a nice gesture at a time when Facebook continues to take a PR beating for the unfathomable opacity of its news feed algorithms. And it might help to reassure you that there actually are a few people out there reading, even when it feels like you’re tweeting into the void. It could also give you a better idea of what types of tweets resonate with your followers and which ones fall flat. Then you can stop boring the hell out of everyone with stray thoughts that are probably amusing only to you.

Or keep doing them! After all, Twitter isn’t a contest, and just because you now have the same tools that are available to advertisers doesn’t mean you have to act like one.

Previously in Slate:

Aug. 27 2014 5:23 PM

Huge Pacific Hurricane Bringing “Gnarly” Swell to Southern California

It’s been years since surfing has been this good in Southern California.

The big waves turned deadly for one surfer on Tuesday morning at Malibu, where the pier was closed for safety reasons. The high surf also damaged several homes in Orange County on Wednesday morning after sand berms meant to hold back the waves failed overnight. Huge crowds of onlookers flooded to the “Wedge” in Newport Beach, where some waves were estimated to reach at least 25 feet.


For a Kansas native like me, it’s almost impossible to imagine being out there on a day like today:

Wednesday’s epic surf is coming thanks to Hurricane Marie, a storm so big it’s already gobbled up a fellow hurricane (Karina) this week. Earlier in the week, Hurricane Lowell also brought great surfing conditions for south-facing beaches. I put together this two-and-a-half day animation that starts around when Marie was at peak strength—Category 5—on Sunday afternoon. (The right-to-left swipes are sunrises and sunsets.)

Surfer Matt Meyerson summed up his experience in one word: “Unreal. … It was so good Sunday, I went back and surfed Malibu in the afternoon. It was the best I've ever seen. It was so good, I was high for the rest of the day.” Though he said Wednesday morning’s waves were “gnarly,” in his opinion, they didn’t live up to the hype, partly due to the crowds. “This morning I was up at 4:30, and it was still dark when I got in the water at Topanga. Still, the beach was packed. When it gets this good, everyone's out there.”

At Newport Beach, Diogo Maltarollo broke his board this morning. “It was on a beautiful wave too." His story:

I rode the barrel for three to five seconds. As it started breaking, I flew to the front of the wave, grabbed the base of my board, and when I came up, there was only half of it left. It really gave me my money's worth, that's for sure. That was my big wave board right there, and it couldn't handle it.
Diogo Maltarollo and his broken board

Image by Alex Bogni, via Tammy Delgado*

Mary Hartmann, who runs Girl in the Curl surf camp at Doheny State Beach in Orange County, is sitting this one out. “We can’t have surf camp in these conditions, but I’m stoked for the people that can take it.”

Since the waves are coming in from the south, parallel to most of Southern California’s beaches, they’re generating exceptionally strong rip currents, requiring extra paddling. Even for experienced surfers like Dan Bialek, that’s made the waves “almost unsurfable.”

“I’ve been running two or three miles a day after work all week just to get in shape for today. This morning, at Seal Beach Jetty, my buddies and I probably paddled at least a couple miles. It was basically nonstop paddling.”

A Wednesday morning wave map showed a bull’s-eye of big swell emanating from Hurricane Marie. Near the storm’s center, waves are close to 40 feet high.

Image: NOAA Wavewatch III model

This weekend, Hurricane Marie briefly became the first Category 5 hurricane in the Eastern Pacific since 2010. Since comprehensive records began in 1949, there have been 15 storms in that part of the ocean that, like Marie, topped out the hurricane strength scale. All but three of these storms have occurred since 1994. On average, global warming is expected to boost the number and intensity of the strongest tropical cyclones, but this year, at least in this part of the world, El Niño may be to blame for the Pacific’s frenetic pace so far.

Update, Aug. 27, 2014: This post was updated to add additional credit information for the photo of the broken surfboard. The photo was taken by Alex Bogni.

Aug. 27 2014 4:00 PM

U.S. Government to Labs: Take an Inventory of Your Pathogens

Correction, Aug. 28, 2014: This post originally quoted Science Insider's report that the White House planed to request all federally funded labs suspend work for 24 hours. Science Insider later clarified that while it will request an inventory of pathogens, it will not ask labs to "suspend" their work. The headline on this post as well as the text have been corrected.

On Wednesday afternoon, Science Insider reported that the U.S. Government was planning to request that all federally funded laboratories working with “high-consequence” pathogens suspend work for 24 hours so that personnel may take stock of what they have stored. However, on Thursday the White House released a statement explaining that this was not the case. Instead, the White House is asking these laboratories to “conduct a ‘Safety Stand-Down,’ ” so that laboratory safety and security, as well as practices and protocols, may be reviewed. This near-term solution is to accompany the longer-term establishment of parallel processes for federal and non-federal review and recommendations. However, contrary to the original report, the administration has not requested that work cease​. (Science Insider cleared things up in a follow-up post.)


Manmade pandemics have indeed occurred before, and occured because the pathogens were being worked with in laboratories to prevent the outbreaks they ended up creating, as was the case with the H1N1 human influenza pandemic of 1977. 

The governmental request follows the potential exposure of workers to anthrax after the inadequate inactivation of samples, a mix-up involving a fatal flu strain that could put the global population at risk, and the discovery of smallpox in an unsecured government lab. (The six vials of smallpox were found along with 321 other vials, some of which were infectious pathogens that are “serious enough to be considered potential bioterror agents.”) However, the inventory stock is not expected to result in new policy or regulations.

Aug. 27 2014 1:43 PM

No, Out-of-Control Groundwater Pumping in California Won’t Cause the “Big One”

Californians have enough to worry about these days, what with the historic drought. Are they also unwittingly ice-bucket-challenging their way to an earthquake disaster? Probably not.

Sunday’s magnitude 6.0 earthquake was the Bay Area’s largest since 1989, when a magnitude 6.9 famously hit during the World Series. A new estimate by the U.S. Geological Survey shows the weekend quake dealt a billion-dollar blow to the state’s economy. The damage was concentrated in the wine region of Napa and Sonoma Counties, where the value of individual bottles can run into the thousands (and also made for some impressive post-quake photos).

Aug. 27 2014 12:49 PM

The House and Senate Intelligence Committees Need Privacy Advocates, Too

“It’s called protecting America,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, asserted in June 2013. In the aftermath of the Snowden leaks, she has defended the domestic surveillance conducted by the NSA as something that has “not been abused or misused” and is “essential,” “necessary and must be preserved.”

The chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary offers a sharply divergent view. We “have to have some checks and balances before [we] have a government that can run amok,” Sen. Patrick Leahy said in January. He has warned that the NSA’s domestic surveillance could lead to “the government controlling us instead of us controlling the government.”