It seems strange, but the world is running out of sand (see here; there’s also a fantastic book on the topic). The problem, in particular, is that sand is used in producing concrete, but only sand with grains that are shaped in a particular way will work.
Unfortunately, desert sand, which is plentiful, is weathered by the wind into a rounded shape that cannot be used for construction purposes. The kind of sand most commonly used for construction comes from a small number of places, and is increasingly rare (and hotly contested).
To turn granular sand into a useful building material, it is generally combined with cement (usually a limestone product) to produce concrete. In addition to using up vast quantities of rare sand, this also produces a lot of carbon dioxide (although there’s various work-arounds in development); construction is a significant source of this greenhouse gas.
What if we took a completely different approach to turning sand into a construction material though? One that can use any sand, even the most common of desert sands. One that does not require concrete at all.
There’s an ongoing argument in the tech community regarding whether advancements in AI are likely to be beneficial or harmful to humanity. Although they’ve previously staked out positions on the matter, in the past few days this has boiled over into a public spat between Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk.
While some commentators have said that this is simply a matter of the two protecting their personal brands, I don’t believe their argument is a conscious matter of marketing, and I don’t think it’s a fair evaluation of either of their points. Rather, I suspect that they’re simply looking at two sides of the same coin, through the filter of their personal experience.
From where Zuckerberg is sitting, AI is already used to make Facebook work better: to better match up content to users, to better allocate data centre resources. Every new technological advancement leads to him hiring more recent PhD graduates, better service, more efficient use of resources. He has also made a valid point with regards to self-driving cars saving lives (an aspect of the discussion where it is likely that he and Musk agree).
From where Musk is sitting, AI is likely going to take over vast additional areas of manufacturing, ultimately finishing off the process that automation and off-shoring started. He may personally gain in the short-term from the reduced costs of building product, but he knows he also has to sell to somebody – and if that person doesn’t have a job, they’re likely not going to be buying a luxury car (or a trip to Mars, for that matter).
The take-away will be no surprise to most readers: AI is disruptive. It will (and is already) benefiting some people, while causing obvious (hopefully, but not necessarily, short-term) harm others. It is impossible to determine right now whether there will be a net benefit on the far side of whatever societal disruption occurs. Opinion of public figures with regards to AI likely rests on whether they will personally benefit (whether they realize this consciously or not), and it is probably worthwhile to interpret their remarks that way.
I’ve been told that there isn’t currently a market for this idea (large construction projects that feature escalators are currently highly price sensitive). Perhaps somebody can find a use for it though.
We live in a world where is seems like every available space already features advertising. In many cases, people have learned to tune it out, to the extent that ad-tech companies constantly have to adjust their methodology in order to find new ways to attract the attention of viewers.
There’s one place where people are potentially a captive market for up to a minute at a time – while riding up and down an escalator (elevators already frequently feature advertising). The beginning and end plates of escalators occasionally feature ads, and I’ve seen inserts in the folding portion of the steps on a few occasions. Typically though, the handrails are left alone, due to the expense of updating adverts (i.e. the rail would have to be transparent, and the entire escalator would likely need to be disassembled in order to insert or remove ads).
The gradual improvement in bendable e-paper type screens could lend itself to this application though; if the entire handrail was formed from a transparent plastic, with a screen underneath it, it could be a cost effective and attractive forum for advertising, particular of a highly localized nature.
Some possibilities that come to mind:
Stores within a mall could, for example, show coupons (possibly with a QR code, for people to scan on their phones).
The railing could be touch sensitive, to allow interaction with people riding the escalator – for instance, displaying a hand-shape, in order to get a person to hold onto the railing; when touched, a “screen” area could be displayed. This could be gamified in a variety of ways.
News, time of day, mall events, and other pieces of information could also be displayed.
I have a variety of tangentially-related ideas (i.e. for how to construct the system, as well as other applications for it), if anyone is interested.
In case you haven’t seen this posted, NASA has a NASA cosmic ray challenge (with $29,000 prize) posted on Innocentive for ways to reduce the impact of cosmic rays on astronauts on extended space missions outside of Low Earth Orbit. This is a serious health concern for Mars missions, and traditional methods of radiation shielding (i.e. lots of lead) are too heavy for current mission parameters.
I’m not a material scientist, so the precise details are beyond me, but here’s roughly what I think the solution will ultimately look like (don’t worry, I’ve submitted this already!). Continue reading →
I just read this article about how Cisco believes that net neutrality rules need to allow for bandwidth shaping.
I believe they’re missing the point entirely.
Right now the issue is that infrastructure owners are playing games with the prioritization of bits, in order to provide leverage for charging tolls to content providers (I’m coining the word “trollboothing“, if it doesn’t exist already, to describe this). The result is a loss for consumers of content, because their internet experience is degraded (sometimes severely). Continue reading →
I’ve been thinking about alternative power-trains lately. I believe I’ve come up with something that is at least partially novel, and that might have applications for nanotechnology (I don’t think it scales up, unfortunately).
The basic idea is a modification of a standard electric motor (linear or rotary – I’ll show examples with use-cases below). The thought I had was whether it was possible to make the “fuel” for the motor directly power it, rather than using electromagnets powered by electricity. Continue reading →
As usual, Elon Musk is keeping everyone guessing. At some point in August, he has said that he is going to reveal exactly what he has in mind for this high speed transit system. There have been a number of guesses about the precise nature of the hyperloop, at least one of them supposedly coming close.
The basic idea has been around since the 60’s – build something like a train, but running inside of a tube, allowing for tight control over the environment that it moves in (and therefore permitting higher velocity). Some of the variations involve a vacuum tube, or pressure differentials to move the vehicles, or magnetic propulsion of different kinds. All of them were ultimately discarded as being unfeasible.
Instead of speculating about the technology (since so many others are doing so already), I just want to share a few thoughts that came to mind about how he might be planning on implementing the hyperloop from a business standpoint.
Railroad companies tend to trade at a relatively low P/E these days. A railroad already owns significant rights-of-way. In theory, buying such a company could be an excellent starting point. The new hyperloop tubes could be built on elevating columns, above the existing railway lines.
Safety is going to be a huge factor. How quickly can the vehicles inside the tube be decelerated in case of emergency? How will the system prevent vehicles from piling into each other at huge velocity, if something goes wrong? How will it deal with things like earthquakes?
My best guess is as follows: this system is wasted on human passengers. Personally, I’d rather take a plane if I’m in a hurry to get somewhere.
However: this would be an amazing way to deliver cargo quickly – think same-day delivery. Combined with other light-weight distribution systems (i.e. a network of small local delivery vehicles), a trans-continental hyperloop network would allow a small number of warehouses to provide same-day coverage for the whole of North America. Think of Amazon’s grocery experiment in San Francisco, scaled up big-time. Using a large volume of tiny vehicles, with automatic routing, the hyperloop would allow for exceptionally agile logistics, and would enable business models that are currently unfeasible.
Google Glass is coming, and with it (I’ll bet) any number of similar me-too products from other manufacturers.
Glass is a sophisticated piece of technology, packing many features into a tiny package. It is an expensive gizmo though, even assuming that the actual price point will be significantly lower than the $1500 demo units. And users still need to connect it to a cellphone for best use (i.e. data package), although it can also connect to WiFi directly, where available.
The question I have is that if the user is still going to need a cellphone anyway, why not remove a big chunk of the functionality from the glasses, and rely on the phone instead? In doing so, a competing product could have identical (or at least very similar) functionality at a far lower price point.
All that’s required is a camera, a small microphone, a tiny LCD display, and some method of connecting to the phone (could even be a lightweight fiber-optic cable for high bandwidth and improved privacy). These are relatively cheap components, compared to having a separate device with its own WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS capabilities (not to mention a CPU of its own and fairly substantial amount of RAM – there’s a nice list of Glass’ features on Wikipedia, here).
Where things will really get interesting, of course, are the next generation of devices after…