HOW FAR WILL ADVERTISING GO?

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When science fiction stories describe a world of the future, it’s the story that grabs and holds our interest but it’s the little details that bring that world to life. How do the characters entertain themselves when they’re not battling to save the world? What do they buy and how do they buy it? What information systems tell them how to navigate their lives?

A few of those questions got me thinking about advertising.

Once upon a time, word-of-mouth was everything if you provided a product or service to a special clientele or the general public. At some point, some cynical soul decided it might be a good idea to put a sign that said “Blacksmith” above his door, just in case the smell of the forge, clang of iron, and giant anvils standing everywhere weren’t enough to clue people in. And then, if there were two smith’s in the same town, a family name on the sign would distinguish it from the competition, and maybe something like “official smith of His Lordship, the Duke” wouldn’t be amiss either.

Advertising really took off once the printing press became widespread. Even Will Shakespeare couldn’t count on an audience magically appearing—they had to be told where and when a performance would take place, along with a little sales pitch to draw them in. Before long, it wasn’t enough to just tell people that you provided a service, and why yours was better than others—you could actually create a market for your deliverables by persuading people they needed what you were offering, even if they didn’t…um, I mean, if they’d never realized it before. Snake oil salesman of all stripes have taken that to heart ever since, and advertising has become as slippery as politicians (who took to it with a vengeance, naturally).

Flyers and newspaper ads weren’t enough—they could be ignored—so some genius came up with the idea of interrupting content on radio and then television with commercials. It became a pact between advertiser and audience: free entertainment in return for paying attention to the ads. Not a bad deal, really. And it worked so well that before long we were subjected to ads attached to content we were already paying for (movie theatres, I’m looking at you). By then, billboards had been blocking scenery for decades, buses and other vehicles had become moving billboards, and even gullible people blithely allowed themselves to become mobile signage by wearing brand names on their clothing, somehow believing it gave them membership in the cool crowd.

The advertising bargain had broken down by then, and we never noticed. We no longer had to implicitly agree to be subjected to it—we had no choice.

Whoever gave advertisers the right to fill our every view, every moment of sound, everything we experience with their messages? It’s like the frog-in-a-pot story: heat the water slowly enough and it will never realize its danger until it’s cooked.

Defenders of advertising will tell you it’s a public service: informing people about products and services they might want. I don’t know about you, but if there’s something I actually need to buy, I can look up where and how to buy it in about thirty seconds with an online search. I don’t need, or want, somebody interrupting my life to tell me what they want me to want. My wife and I only watch streaming and pre-recorded content at home—no commercials. We mostly listen to public radio—no commercials. And we’ve opted to receive no flyers in the mail. Do I sometimes miss flipping through them? Sure. But my impulse purchases have gone way down.

What does all this have to do with the future? Well, as technology becomes ever more pervasive and invasive, so does advertising. Do you think it will be cool to walk past a billboard and have it address you by name and show an ad for stuff you really like? In fact, it’s already happening whenever you surf the internet or use social media, and personalized ads show up. Think about how much some company has to know about you to do that. Just add facial recognition and gait recognition capability to the billboards, and you’ve got a sales pitch just for you…that everyone walking nearby can also see. Watch out for the lamppost! Oops, too late. And forget about just enjoying the ambience of a neighbourhood street, because the next billboard will call out to you just as insistently, and the next, and the next. If regulators don’t prevent them, the billboards will send urgent messages to your phone telling you about the big shoe sale a block ahead. Might be kind of cool, you think? Until you get twenty such messages in a ten-minute walk to your favourite coffee shop.

Forget about movie stickers on bananas; what about when each section of orange, slice of melon, cross-section of cheese is imprinted with slogans? When your toaster etches your slice of bread with “30% Off Sale Today at…!” When your shampoo contains fluorescent glitter micro-particles that coalesce into product placements for everyone to read. So far, you’re allowed to turn your TV to a channel that doesn’t play commercials, but what about when your TV forces you to watch ad messages first whenever you turn it on?

I’ve written a novel about internet-capable brain augments. One of my speculations is that unscrupulous advertisers will figure out how to use them to directly stimulate the vision and auditory centres of the brain. Suddenly you see a giant bottle of [insert your favourite cola brand here] floating in front of your eyes and hear their latest jingle in your ears. I’ll leave you to imagine the results if it happens while you’re riding a bike, crossing a street, or about to descend some stairs.

Far-fetched, you think? Absolutely not, I promise you. We’ve already allowed ourselves to be subjected to advertising in virtually every aspect of our lives, in increasingly intrusive ways. If a method arises to directly access the minds of consumers, it will be used. Unless we act to prevent it. And I’m not talking about writing to your local politician (although it wouldn’t hurt)—it’s your money that talks. If you want to send a message to advertisers that it’s all too much, stop buying the products and services of the companies that use advertising methods you don’t like and tell them why. Shut off all the personalized advertising functions of your social media. Cancel all your rewards programs accounts. Boost privacy settings on all of your electronic devices.

I’m expecting too much, right? You like a lot of that personalized advertising, not to mention rewards points. And buying things gives you a buzz.

Yeah, I know. Which is why intrusive advertising has come this far, and will go every bit as far as we allow it to.

Do you feel the water getting hot yet?

NANOBOTS TO THE RESCUE

 Image courtesy of ASU Biodesign Institute

Image courtesy of ASU Biodesign Institute

The invention of the microscope might not have started humankind’s interest in the study of very small things, but it certainly provided a major boost. Within the past century we’ve seen advancements like the electron scanning microscope that enables scientists to not only see atomic-sized objects but also manipulate them, and chemical technologies like CRISPR/Cas9 used to edit living genes. Nanoscience is making significant progress in medical fields, including  the prospect of some day having robotic devices too small to see programmed to circulate through our bloodstream and keep us healthy.

Maybe that idea was inspired by the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage which featured a team of scientists in a submarine shrunk down to microscopic size, racing through a bloodstream to dissolve a potentially fatal blood clot and save a man’s life. Loving that idea (but reluctant to write about shrink rays) I wrote a (so-far-unpublished) novel and published a prequel story to it called “Shakedown” that featured a nano-scale submersible piloted remotely through the bloodstream using virtual reality. You can read “Shakedown” here. While both stories are science fiction, the reality is coming closer than ever.

New work performed by Arizona State University along with China’s National Center for Nanoscience and Technology is an astonishing step forward.

Cancer tumours are like other living tissue in that they need circulation of blood to survive. They have their own blood vessels, just like our skin and organs. So what if you could cut off that blood supply to a tumour without harming healthy cells around it?

Great idea—the problem is how to do it. We know that an enzyme called thrombin is used by the body to seal wounds and keep our blood from leaking out. Thrombin binds a substance called fibrin with platelets to produce clotting at the wound. A good thing. Mind you, blood clots in the wrong places can be deadly to tissues, causing embolisms and possibly strokes. A bad thing. Unless you could find a way to cause blood clots only in the blood vessels of cancer tumours.

That’s what the Arizona  and Chinese scientists have done, and in a brilliant way.

They had to solve two problems: how to deliver thrombin through the bloodstream to the site of the tumour, and how to keep it from accidentally affecting blood vessels of healthy tissue. The delivery system they developed uses DNA—yes, the stuff in our genes that carries the information that makes our bodies the way they are. Turns out DNA can be folded in lots of ways. So these scientists have performed DNA origami, making little DNA tubes with thrombin molecules inside them. Kind of like a tube of tennis balls. Then, to make sure this special package gets delivered only to the right address, they attached a chemical called a DNA aptamer that’s attracted to a protein only found on the surface of the tumour cells, not on healthy cells.

Apparently, the system has worked well in tumours in mice, producing substantial blockages and the consequent deaths of the tumour cells.

You’ll know by now that lots of work remains to be done before the technique can be used on humans, but there’s no reason to believe it won’t happen. And that’s just one example of the progress being made. Maybe, you’ll quibble, a folded tube of DNA isn’t exactly a robot, and a chemical bonding agent can’t truly be called “programming”. Well, I think that will come too, someday. In the meantime, every new nano-medical success is something worth celebrating.

CAN SF OFFER BETTER WAYS TO GET FROM HERE TO THERE?

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Over the recent holiday season my wife and I visited family in a large city, including lots of experience with public and private transportation. Subways, streetcars, buses, and hours in a private car over snow-and-traffic-clogged highways moving little or not at all. It made me wonder again why we still don’t have better ways of getting from place to place—faster and more convenient ways. Sure, there are lots of good things to be said about newer mass transit vehicles, given the challenges. But individual self-driving pods would be a lot nicer, and when I consider the four-hour and six-hour drives that separate us from some family members, a Star Trek transporter or Larry Niven’s stepping disks would be a godsend!

It’s often pointed out that, after nearly a century of imagining them, we still don’t have flying cars. Actually, some do exist but they’re hideously expensive prototypes that would still be revoltingly expensive in production, and none are really practical for the workday commute. More like a quirky toy for the private pilot who likes to keep his aircraft in his own garage.

At the other end of the cost scale are a lot of wacky personal street devices that mostly look like variations on a powered skateboard. Fun, maybe, but not terribly useful on a crowded sidewalk or a roadway with cars. Not to mention stairs! Check out this video.

A cool site called Technovelgy has collected transportation concepts proposed in dozens of works of science fiction. It’s revealing that almost all of them fall into a small number of basic categories: cars, flying belts, maglev transports, moving roadways, and teleportation.

Since the invention of the automobile we’ve been obsessed with personal vehicles—might as well call them cars—fast, often self-driving, sometimes self-levitating for a smoother and faster drive, very often able to fly, and once in a while even able to travel in time (who can ever forget Back to the Future’s DeLorean?) The self driving car is enticingly close to becoming practical, and could make a huge difference to urban commuting, if only by eliminating torrents of rage over every other driver’s utter incompetence! I enjoy driving, but I’d gladly give up the privilege in urban environments in exchange for knowing that none of the other vehicles was controlled by idiots. Again, flying cars would be great for long-distance travel but not worth sky-high prices to most people. And amphibious cars would be a treat for those of us who live on islands, but of no value to almost anyone else.

Of course, the terrific versatility of a flying belt (or rocket pack, or maybe the turbofan-powered Martin jetpack) is very appealing. Who doesn’t wish they could fly like a bird? Zip anywhere without waiting in line-ups or hunting for a parking space. But so far its physical manifestations have been lacking, with serious safety and distance limitations. Bad weather would be a pain, too. Given the impressive advances in drone technology due to improvements in battery tech, I can’t say that we’ll never get to a practical personal lifting device. Solving antigravity would do it, but I don’t think I’ll hold my breath for that just yet.

Magnetically-levitating trains, monorails, and personal transport pods already exist, providing much greater speeds than normal tracks. New proposals, like Elon Musk’s Hyperloop (in a vacuum tunnel to further enhance speed) and Tel Aviv’s SkyTran have promise. But development costs are terribly high, which means that governments rarely move ahead with them until conditions get truly desperate. And high-speed maglev transports are really only an advantage over longer distances, not for downtown urban traffic.

For the city dweller, moving sidewalks and roadways might be the answer if we could solve issues of inertia and momentum. We already have “human conveyor belts” in places like airports, but more than one speed is rarely offered. Even in the 1940’s Robert Heinlein described side-by-side “slideways” with velocities up to 100 miles per hour, but did he really think through what it would be like to step from the 60 mph belt to the 80 mph belt beside it? Without some kind of inertia-dampening field, spectacular face-plants would be the norm. And don’t suggest the pneumatic tube variation used in Futurama—an air lift tube might work as a strictly vertical elevator, but otherwise no thanks!

What about teleportation—the most versatile and convenient of all? As big a fan as I am of Star Trek, I have a hard time believing that its transporter technology will ever be possible. That a computing device could accurately locate and reproduce billions of atoms constantly in motion, including electrons in their shells of probability, seems unlikely. I actually consider it more likely (though admittedly not by much!) that a means might be found to warp and pierce space/time in such a way as to produce personal wormholes that would allow us to slip instantly from place to place. I like the idea, until I start to imagine the universe as Swiss cheese.

There is a fringe concept in cosmology proposing that at the quantum level of the zero point field lies an ultimate blueprint underlying the entire cosmos, describing the nature and location of everything. If it's true, and if we could ever decode that information and manipulate it, theoretically we could transform any kind of matter into any other kind. But, more to the point of this blog, we could change our own location coordinates and thereby reappear anywhere we wanted to be. We wouldn’t be travelling in any sense, we’d be altering the condition of the very universe, with ourselves in a different place and time than before. Instantaneous. Painless. Worry-free. (Although you’d have to know your destination with perfect precision and be able to harmlessly remove any matter already existing in that space, or trade places with it.)

Interesting refinements of the regular transportation modes crop up all the time (check out super-cavitating boats and city-wide zip lines in this Listverse article, plus solar-powered and magnetically-charged buses). But it would be cool to come up with something truly new—beyond the main categories—and be able to implement it within our lifetime. My saddle sore backside would thank you.

MORE BUILDING BLOCKS OF THE FUTURE

 CREDIT University of Central Florida

CREDIT University of Central Florida

In my last post I wrote about some of the ways a bright technological future is already under construction, one development at a time. There are far too many new inventions and discoveries to be covered in a handful of blog posts, but I thought I’d touch on just a few more. You can follow the links to read more details at the magazine NewAtlas.com.

Some of the most exciting new work is being done in the area of energy. Since our ravenous consumption of energy from fossil fuel sources is one of the key reasons our world’s environment is in such a sorry state, every alternative is a step toward heading off even worse damage. Some new developments are potential sources of energy production, like the wafer materials known as ferroelectret nanogenerators such as are being developed at Michigan State University. These FENGs (for short) involve layers of complex materials sandwiched together which produce an electric current when compressed. So, for instance, pressing on a touch screen device might produce the energy to power that screen. Bending and flexing can also produce current, perhaps turning our elbows or knees into potential energy generators. With a FENG folded into a more potent package in the heel of a shoe, creating energy could be a walk in the park!

Thermoelectric materials produce electric current because of temperature differences on either side of the material. Scientists at Korea’s Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology say they’ve developed a thermoelectric coating that can simply be painted onto objects. So nearly anything that has a warmer inside and a colder outside (or vice versa) could produce energy. Maybe not useful for house paint in northern climates where we like our homes well insulated, but possibly for shelters in more gentle climes. And certainly potentially useful for loads of household gadgets from coffee mugs to crockpots.

With our desire for ever more powerful portable computing devices, designers have explored lots of ways to make our clothing and accessories “smart” with circuitry incorporated into them, but also elegant means to power such devices. University of Central Florida scientists have created a “fabric” that uses threads of very special filaments. A coating on one side of the filament gathers solar energy then passes it over to the other side, which is a superconductor (storing energy like a battery). A combination sweater/smartphone anyone? Although, not surprisingly, the first practical uses for this stuff will probably be in uniforms for the modern soldier, giving them the ability to power a range of portable high-tech hardware without the weight of batteries.

Other developments are fascinating if mainly for their “oh, wow” ingenuity, like the way Irish materials scientist Jonathan Coleman added flakes of graphene (one-atom-thick sheets of carbon atoms) to Silly Putty to produce an electrically conductive material he calls G-putty that’s ridiculously sensitive to pressure impacts of any kind. That could make it the perfect choice for medical sensors and other sensing equipment (and made of Silly Putty!)

Still other innovations could transform our world in ways that might take some time to become clear. A company in the Netherlands has created an alternative to stairs and elevators which they call Vertical Walking. In a near-sitting position, a person uses their arms and core muscles to pull themselves up vertical rails in a series of movements that provide healthful exercise but aren’t much more strenuous than walking, while not requiring the external energy, space, and infrastructure of elevators. I’m not sure it’ll catch on, though it’s an interesting idea.

But I have to say that not all new inventions will necessarily make the world a better place. Speaking as someone who’s still mystified by the appeal of “selfies” and their proliferation along social media, I wasn’t impressed by the appearance of the selfie stick. So I’m also not a fan of the AirSelfie drone—a miniature quadcopter the size and shape of a smartphone designed to offer even more ways to be relentlessly narcissistic. Stored in your smartphone case, powered by and linked to the phone, it flutters smoothly into the air at your command, just far enough to take yet another series of pictures of YOU.

If you think this is the most exciting of the breakthroughs I’ve just mentioned, please, I don’t want to know.

THE FUTURE IS UNDER CONSTRUCTION

The future isn’t something that will suddenly spring upon us ready-made. Whether you grew up on The Jetsons, Star Trek, Futurama, or just got a kick out of the predictions in magazines like Popular Mechanics and Popular Science (flying cars are always just a few years away) you probably wondered what it would be like to fall asleep for decades like Rip Van Winkle and suddenly arrive in that future world. Of course, that’s not the way it happens. The future comes with every passing moment. You’ve already witnessed incredible changes in technology in your lifetime, many of which no one predicted. Yes, a leap ahead ten years would bring a whole range of new gadgets and processes, but the point is, those “next big things” are in development now.

That struck me forcefully this week when I discovered the online magazine New Atlas. Article after article featured new discoveries, pending inventions, and cool gadgets—the future in process. It’s not only fun to read about the incredible ingenuity of human beings, but also to let your imagination run free about what these new creations could bring.

Some of them are potential game changers on a large scale. Like the research at Australia National University on the light-changing properties of certain nanocrystals (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter, and nanotechnology is one of the most promising areas of research around). The reason humans don’t see well at night isn’t that there isn’t any light around, it’s just light at frequencies the human eye can’t detect. Night vision goggles mostly collect infrared light and other frequencies and amplify it. But nanocrystals can be produced that shift the frequency of incoming light, say, from infrared into something in the visual spectrum. So imagine an ultrathin coating on regular eyeglasses or even contact lenses that can make these night-time forms of light visible for us. Suddenly there’s no more need for glaring, energy-sucking streetlamps that turn cities into gargantuan floodlights and banish the night sky. Usage of every kind of artificial light could be reduced. Not to mention the aesthetic and artistic possibilities of seeing our surroundings in whole new ways.

Sticking with crystals for a moment, some other Australian researchers at the University of New South Wales are working to refine a form of solar power crystals called perovskite. Perovskite was discovered about seven years ago, and along with its ability to convert sunlight into energy, it can be made with different chemical compositions to produce distinct properties. Among other things, it can be manufactured in various colours or completely transparent, and can be sprayed on in layers. So you could paint your car, or almost any other object, and the whole thing would become one big solar panel. Issues of durability and efficiency are being worked out, but someday perhaps every structure of an entire city could be put to use providing free and abundant energy. A bright future indeed.

One of the big problems humanity has to deal with is all of the waste products we produce, everything from nuclear waste to raw sewage. On the nuclear front, scientists at the University of Bristol, in England, have developed a way to make good use of the carbon from graphite blocks that have been used for decades to control nuclear reactions in UK generating plants. The graphite ends up mildly radioactive, but rather than find ways to dispose of it these scientists put it under pressure and heat and turn it into man-made diamonds. The diamonds aren’t for decoration—the radioactivity in them reacts with the diamond structure to produce an electric current, and suddenly you’ve got a diamond that’s a battery. A non-radioactive diamond coating makes the battery safe to handle, and it’s thought that these diamonds could still be producing half of their original energy output nearly six thousand years from now! Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Energizer bunny!

But pressure and heat can help transform another waste product, too. It was high pressure and heat that, over eons of time, turned sludgy sea bottoms into crude oil. In a copycat process, a team from the US Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has learned how to turn raw sewage into biocrude: an oil-like sludge that can be processed the same way as other forms of petroleum from the ground, including into gasoline and other fuels. Considering that U.S cities are calculated to produce 128 billion litres of raw sewage every day, a process like this could be a tremendous boon to both the production of energy and the reduction of pollution.

Obviously, all of these discoveries are still in the refinement stage and will need to be scaled up considerably before they make a major mark on our world, but they are the future, right before our eyes. And, even more importantly, a hopeful future.

I’ll take a look at more of these new developments in a future post.

WHOSE DATA IS IT ANYWAY?

You can’t use a computer or other networked device these days without hearing about “the cloud”. Cloud file storage means that your computer, phone, or tablet uploads files to some company’s computer servers via the internet. The advantages include: a) saving storage space on our own device’s hard drive or flash memory, b) you can access your files from other internet-connected devices you own without having to make copies, c) other people can access your files with your permission (like photos you want to share), and d) you can backup your files and not worry about them being lost if your computer implodes. Sounds like a good deal, right? Cloud services usually offer free storage up to a certain limit, and then let you buy more space if you need it (because who ever deletes files anyway?—well, actually some cloud services do, but we’ll get to that).

More and more software companies are moving away from selling software to you in favour of having you subscribe to their service (like Adobe’s iconic Photoshop), with all of your work-in-progress automatically stored “in the cloud”, of course.

There have been problems. Business servers can be damaged or hacked or shut down if the company goes out of business. Internet services can have outages. But it’s some more insidious features that have kept me away from cloud storage.

If you’ve ever had an Apple iCloud account and wanted to cancel it, change to a new one, or just sign out, you’ll have seen a warning that documents stored in your iCloud account will be deleted from your local computer.

What?? Why? Whose files are they anyway?

Something similar can happen if you subscribe to the music streaming service, Apple Music. In fact, people who weren’t careful have apparently lost thousands of tunes they purchased, created, or got elsewhere, because of the strange way Apple does these things. In the case of iCloud, I’ve read that you can’t actually delete an account—your files all remain on Apple’s servers in case you ever want to sign back in. And Apple isn’t unique—a number of services had to backpedal because their terms of agreement seemed to suggest they would own the data they stored. So the biggest players now expressly state that they do not claim ownership…except they still act like they do.

Again, whose files are they? You thought they were yours, but once you’ve uploaded them to the cloud, a company can delete them from your own computer and then hang onto them for as long as they like.

No thanks. Extra hard-drives aren’t that expensive.

So where will all this lead? Well, it will take some determined lobbying to stop this trend, and I don’t see anything like that happening. People blindly accept the situation because of the convenience it offers, just like they willingly give companies access to huge amounts of private personal information for “reward points” or other paltry incentives. I don’t understand that either. But since hardly anyone objects, we have to assume it will only get worse, and soon all of the electronic documents, photos, music, and other forms of creativity and entertainment you produce or consume will be under the control of others.

Don’t expect it to stop there.

Eventually our phones and tablets will be replaced by devices that directly interface with our brains. Our minds will have internet connectivity, with the ability to access all of that information and entertainment by the power of thought. Now we upload our photos to the cloud. Maybe by then we’ll depend on it to store our actual memories. And when we do, who will have control over them? I think you know the answer. We’re willing to hand over custody of personal documents and pictures for the sake of a few gigabytes of free storage, so it’s not realistic to expect we’ll balk at such things when we’re offered the ability to practically relive that Bruce Springsteen farewell concert we loved so much, note by note, anytime we feel like it.

Just as long as we don’t opt out of the storage company’s service, or do anything else to cross them, and as long as they don’t go out of business or succumb to a malware attack. Then it’s ‘bye bye memories’.

The two Total Recall movies were based on a Philip K. Dick story called “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”, but that was about implanting fictional memories for fun. What about when a company makes you subscribe to their service to be able to access your own memories? Or when you’re able to learn specialized job skills using direct information downloads to your brain, but the training company can take those skills back if you stop paying for them? Or if you’re a creative type and you want to keep working on that epic fantasy novel you’re writing but the cloud server is offline, or there’s been a glitch that erased a couple of chapters, or the service wants half the royalties if the novel ever sells…or…or…? Are you getting the picture?

Whose data is it anyway? Unless you’re keeping it totally under your own control, that’s just not so easy to answer anymore.

 

This blog post doesn’t even touch on the other risks of cloud computing, like cyberattacks and weak security among users. If you want to read more, here are some starters from InfoWorld, Business News, and Information Week.