Contest #3: The Next Big Thing

Here's your third of four chances to win an iPod or 36 other prizes in the Great Tech Call-'Em-Like-You-See-'Em Contest. Weigh in and win!

June 20, 2005

40 Min Read
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Welcome to Week 3 of The Great Tech Call-'Em-Like-You-See-'Em Contest, the contest where you can win one of two iPods, plus 36 other cool prizes.

What's it all about? Well, each week for four weeks we expound on a different theme in a series of short essays by various TechWeb editors and then let our readers take over by submitting their own contributions.

The topics are:

  • The Software Hall Of Fame: What is your favorite software app of the last 10 years? (There's still time to enter!)

  • The Hardware Hall Of Fame: What's the best hardware you've come across in the past decade? (Enter any time!)

  • The Next Big Thing: There's a lot of great stuff coming up. What tech do you see in your future? (Enter at the end of this story.)

  • Helpless User Stories: Tell us your best, funniest, and/or most horrifying story of user lo-jinks. (Now open!)

    This week, we're looking for The Next Big Thing in tech. We've got our own ideas about what technologies will be hot in the next few years — but, as you'll see, some of our editors directly contradict each other. So now it's your turn. What have we missed? What awesome new technology will arise to blow our puny predictions away?

    We want to know what you think is the most important, most useful, coolest, or strangest tech out there. Something that will change your life — that will, in fact, change all our lives.

    But please, no Buck Rogers ray-gun fantasies. We want to hear about real technologies that will affect us all within the next five years.

    Why would you want to go out on a limb to predict the world's next great technology? To win prizes, of course!

    About The Contest
    How do you win? It's easy.1.  Read our editors' essays. This week, ten TechWeb editors have tried their hardest to convince you that their technology of choice is really The Next Big Thing. Pay attention — they'll clue you in on the type of entries we're looking for.

    2.  Write 200 to 700 words about a technology that will wow the world within the next five years. Impress us with your erudition, make us laugh, dazzle us with your well-reasoned arguments, do something to make us sit up and take notice. Remember, in our contest — as in life — style counts. Write as often as you like — but each entry has to be about a different product, technology, or true story.

    3.  Send us your deathless prose using the contest form on the last page of this article.

    4.  Keep your fingers crossed!

    All entries must be received by July 5. On or around July 15, our team of judges (drawn from the TechWeb Pipeline editors) will award the writers of the very best essays with one of our fantastic prizes:

  • Grand Prize: An Apple iPod Photo 30GB

  • First Prize: An Apple iPod Mini 6GB

  • 10 Second Prizes: X1 Technologies' X1 Desktop Search, Outlook + Lotus Notes Edition

  • 26 Runner-Up Prizes: Six Logitech QuickCams (three QuickCam for Notebooks Deluxe and three QuickCam Communicate STX versions), 10 copies of Thornsoft Development's ClipMate Clipboard Extender for Windows, and 10 copies of Sunbelt Software's CounterSpy.

Please read the contest rules for important information. Many thanks to X1, Logitech, Thornsoft, and Sunbelt Software for contributing their goods to our cause.This Week's Assignment: The Next Big Thing
Read on to find out which technologies our editors nominated as The Next Big Thing. After you've read our picks, tell us what you think!

The Internet's Next Act
By Scot Finnie

Suspend your disbelief with me for a second. The year is 2010. Many of the things that companies tried in 1999 and that Wall Street snickered about in the early "oughts" are starting to happen now.

Your grocery list is written with a stylus on the touch-screen LCD terminal in your kitchen, and the grocery store automatically delivers those items every Thursday. Tap an on-screen button and your family calendar is displayed with soccer games, recitals, business trips, holidays, vacations, social events, and dentist appointments laid out for you. Some calendar items appear automatically based on messages sent by doctors, dentists, and so forth. Tap another button and check movie listings, restaurant menus, and the hours kept by local stores. Tap another button and access the phone company's yellow pages. Tap another button to access your town's services.

In your home office, you place your fingertip in the fingerprint reader to turn on your wall LCD, which displays pending bills and automatic payments that await your approval. It also shows your current bank account balances. Tap a button and your 401K and stock values are displayed in real time. Tap another button, and all your family's medical prescriptions are displayed, along with number of days left before any reorders are needed. Tap another button, and your work calendar is displayed. Tap another button and see real-time scores for your favorite sports.

All of this is powered by smarter computers, networking, operating systems, software integration, and most of all, the Internet. But all of it could be accomplished with today's technology.

The idea of living without the Internet will seem like a hardship, like losing telephone service or electricity.

It's not unrealistic to suppose that by the year 2010 we'll see 70 percent broadband penetration in the U.S., an average 25Mbps always-on broadband service for $40 a month, and fat fiber-optics strung in all our major cities and suburbs, as well as most smaller metro areas. The Internet is the lingua franca of media and communications; it delivers instant messaging, e-mail, phone, radio, television, video, and print all in one. It is the delivery mechanism for every kind of content and communication there is.

But five years from now, the Internet will be something even more important than the electronic medium for all information, as significant as that is. It's likely to be both a business and a household utility, like electricity. We don't yet fully rely on the Internet. We are still in the gee-whiz phase. But how long will it be before the idea of living without the Internet seems like a hardship, like losing telephone service or electricity?

Few technologies developed by humanity throughout history have the power the Internet does to reach into virtually every nook and cranny of our lives. The world is going digital before our eyes. If history were a movie, the shift of every type of recorded data from analog to digital would look like a flash of lightning. Just like that, we've changed everything. But it's happened so fast that we have not taken in all the ramifications yet.

The Internet will play host and/or conduit to the vast majority of all recorded information. This medium that stores data, that is endlessly customizable, that anyone can publish to instantly, that can deliver information rapidly, that is the backbone upon which people communicate in many ways, that can scale and scale, that will grow and be improved and extended — this amazing medium may one day be looked at as the greatest achievement of the 20th century.It's not really that hard to imagine, is it? No matter what technical changes are still in the offing, the Internet's social and cultural effects are only just beginning to be felt. Over the next five years, that will become apparent to all. The Internet is more than just cool. It's awe inspiring. And it will change the way we live in ways we're only just beginning to realize.

Scot Finnie is Editor of TechWeb and the Pipelines.

Got the idea? Submit your Next Big Thing entry now!
IPTV
By Paul Kapustka

In five years, we may have forgotten that the letters "TV" once didn't have "IP" in front of them.

Why am I so confident that IPTV — the transmission of television and other video over IP networks — will succeed? Mainly because it's a fundamental shift: from users merely accepting the signals broadcast down to them to an individualized, personalized way to watch what you want, when you want, and more. It's the enabling technology that will finally deliver the Jetsons-like promises we've heard for so long now. This stuff is actually starting to happen right now. And in five years we'll all have it.What can IPTV offer? Think of TiVo on steroids. Better yet, think of it as not just deciding when you want to watch something, but how you want to watch it, and from what angle. Instead of watching the one-camera-at-a-time broadcast view of a baseball game, think of being able to switch between multiple camera offerings, or split your screen to watch three different games at the same time. Think of participating in IM chat on the bottom of the screen with other fans or your far-flung friends.

If you don't leave the couch now, you're going to be stitched into it five years down the road.

How else will IPTV improve on what you have now in your living room? Think of a virtual Netflix, an always-open Blockbuster store with any movie ever made just a few mouse-clicks away. Or the ability to watch a new sitcom and click on a character to purchase the old-school sports jersey he's wearing. Then click on the Domino's icon to order up a pepperoni pie. If you don't leave the couch now, you're going to be stitched into it five years down the road.

A price? Of course there's a price. You pay a lot for video-based entertainment now, and service providers are counting on you to pay more, or at least as much, for a more convenient, more powerful version. Cable companies and big telcos are betting their businesses on it. That's why they're ripping up streets and bringing fiber to your doorstep — for the all-important $100-plus per month fee.

And you will pay it. Because the service won't just stop at TV. It will include music and your online photo album. It will include a server that can beam your entertainment to your laptop or cell phone when you're on the road. It'll also include your phone service, but that will be an afterthought, a free add-on. Your set-top box (what a quaint piece of hardware) will likely be a Pentium-class or better media server, with a wireless router built in. Although the Bluetooth signals from all the interconnected devices may cook your food outside the microwave, that's a small price to pay for so much fun, isn't it?What's really uncertain is how advertising will fit in. It will be there, trust me. Maybe not the standard 30-second ads we're used to, since TiVo has already shown us how easy it is to zip past those annoying pitches. Maybe ads will get more creative, sponsoring interactivity. And controlling ads will be so much fun we won't stop there. Instead of letting an NFL referee watch instant replays under a hood, maybe every fan watching at home can vote on whether it's a fumble or not. American Idol was just the start. Wait until home video uploads, like Google's service, become mainstream. Imagine bloggers armed with cheap videocams, and you get the idea.

The old joke about cable TV is that there's 500 channels and nothing's on. Five years from now, there will be an infinite number of channels and everything will be on. And we'll all be watching.

Paul Kapustka is Editor of Advanced IP Pipeline.

Got the idea? Submit your Next Big Thing entry now!
Wallet Phones

ViVOtech uses RFID to process credit card payments from the user's cell phone.

By Mike Elgan

Cell phones have become the Mother Of All Convergence Devices, swallowing PDAs, digital cameras, pocket calculators, pagers and everything else that comes into their path.Don't look now, but cell phones are coming after your wallet.

That's right. Five years from now, you won't need to carry around that dead-cow-skin-sack-full-of-dead-tree-pulp in your back pocket or purse. Your mobile phone will replace everything.

Let's have a look at what's in your wallet. Cash, checks, and credit cards? Cell phones will work wirelessly to process and authenticate financial transactions. ID? Secure authentication — sometimes with fingerprint ID — is being engineered into phones. Pictures of your kids? Parents with camera phones already have them.

Special-purpose cell phone payment systems are emerging. Vending machines in Europe and Japan and parking meters in Florida let you call a number to pay.

But real wallet phones will let you pay for just about everything wirelessly (via Bluetooth, infra-red or RFID) rather than calling a number.

Five years from now, you won't need to carry around that dead-cow-skin-sack-full-of-dead-tree-pulpin your back pocket or purse.

Of course, Japan is way ahead of us on this. In Japan, phones are used both as credit card authenticators and as debit cards.

NTT DoCoMo, the Japanese telephone monopoly, rolled out five new 3G phones this year designed to function as wallet phones. Called the FOMA 901iS series, these phones support ticketing in addition to universal "e-money." That means you buy movie or sports tickets via the phone, then at the venue you present either an on-screen barcode or a unique number displayed on your phone to prove you've paid. The phones support both pre-paid transactions, which are like cash, and post-paid transactions, which are like credit cards.

NTT DoCoMo is so hot on wallet phones that earlier this year the company invested about $900 million to buy a 34 percent stake in the credit card unit of the Sumitomo Mitsui bank. One likely outcome of the deal is that NTT phones will also replace ATM cards.

Here in the U.S., Motorola and MasterCard are testing a system using MasterCard's PayPass contactless RFID payment technology, which replaces cash, credit cards, and photo ID. Nokia, Samsung, and even Sony are working on similar technology for the U.S. market.One completely bogus argument against wallet phones is that they're insecure. But they're way more secure than real wallets for several reasons. First, you can lose a single credit card without noticing for a while. Meanwhile, some punk is at the mall having the time of his life at your expense. If you lose your phone, you'll usually notice much quicker.

The Japanese phones that shipped this year come with a special phone number you can call if you lose the phone to lock it so thieves don't take it shopping — which is much better than the credit card scheme where you have to call every card company and cancel individual cards, then wait for replacements.

What I like best about the promise of wallet phones is that you should be able to receive cash as well as give. With credit and debit cards, only authorized retailers can receive money. But there's no reason why you shouldn't be able to transfer electronic cash from one phone to another.

Unlike some tech trends, there's zero possibility that wallet phones won't happen, and for one simple reason: Everyone stands to benefit.

The handset makers will make a bundle selling the new wallet phones, then skimming micropayments off your transactions. The banks and retailers will rush to support it because it makes it easier for you to spend more money than you want to. The government wants wallet phones to happen because they move people away from paper cash, which is expensive to support and can't be tracked. And finally, you and I want it to happen because it will be fun and cool to buy stuff with our phones.Kiss your wallet good-bye. It won't be long before it's gone forever.

Mike Elgan is Editor of Personal Tech Pipeline.

Got the idea? Submit your Next Big Thing entry now!
Everyday 64-Bit Computing
By Don St. John

Remember the last time your computer's processor was suddenly able to handle a lot more information? You had probably just installed Windows 95. And although Win95 wasn't actually a true 32-bit system (it had plenty of 16-bit DOS code sitting inside it, to enable you to keep using older 16-bit-based devices), it would let you run 32-bit software — and that was a revelation.

Remember how deep and sharp graphics suddenly looked? The speed boosts that your software experienced? The idea that this box on your desk might actually take you places?Get ready to experience that all over again, but this time to the nth degree. PCs with 64-bit processors have been hitting the market since AMD's first Athlon64 releases in September 2003, and with Wintel machines joining the 64-bit parade, they're going to be the norm in another year, two at most. As with the last transition, it'll take a while for various hardware devices and software to catch up, but when they do, everything you can do on a PC is going to look way better, run way faster, and be way more efficient. And you're going to flip.

You've actually seen 64-bit technology before, in dedicated gaming consoles (that's what the number at the end of the Nintendo 64 stood for); the current generation are now 128-bit machines. But those only do a few specific things at most. Enterprise servers have also crossed the 64-bit barrier, but that's strictly a business thing. A 64-bit PC, on the other hand, will run everything in 64-bit mode, and the result is that your applications won't look anything like they do today.

In five years, your present computeris going to look like a black-and-white TV didthe first time you saw color.

How will it work? Well, that bit number is the "word length" — the amount of 0s and 1s the computer can assemble and convince your PC's processor to swallow in one chunk. The bigger the chunk, the faster and more complex your applications can be. But doubling the word length from 32 to 64 bits doesn't merely double the amount of information you can have, because you get all the combinations of 0s and 1s that can go into each of the added 32 slots.

So your applications will now be able to access more memory (128GB of physical RAM under 64-bit Windows, as opposed to the maximum 4GB that 32-bit Windows can handle, and terabytes of virtual memory) and have extraordinarily more complex threads. Plus, they'll be running on processors that are physically faster and will be carrying more cores to handle double (or more) the processing load.The operating systems are all ready: Linux has been running 64-bit for some time, and Microsoft is just out the door with Windows XP x64. The next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn, will be built for 64-bit from the ground up.

The implications for graphics alone are stunning: That's 32 more places where graphics instructions can be executed above today's machines, and they'll be accessing dedicated graphics hardware with way more memory to boot. Gamers are going to looooove 64-bit PC play (characters' artificial intelligence and environment modeling will be far richer than in today's already-excellent gameplay), and I'm willing to bet that 64-bit machines will be the vehicle that finally brings widescale high-definition streamed video to your PC.

The benefits don't stop there. Heavy-crunching applications like Photoshop will look like they're opening a text document, they'll be so fast. Businesses are going to benefit on the desktop with far more power for databases and other heavy-processing applications. And none of this is going to cost significantly more than you pay for PCs now.

In truth, the ability of applications to grow in the 64-bit era may be limited only by developers' imaginations. They'll be able to take today's flat applications and bring depth to them. Data modeled in three dimensions? Molecular collisions rendered in real time and full size? Music played in 24-bit surround sound, with a light show that dwarfs today's fractal screen savers? All possible, plus a lot more we haven't even dreamt of yet.

Count on this, though: In five years, your present computer is going to look like a black-and-white TV did the first time you saw color — you'll never be able to go back.Don St. John is Editor of Server Pipeline.

Got the idea? Submit your Next Big Thing entry now!
Access Everywhere
By David DeJean

"Convergence" is a word that gets thrown around very freely these days. Generally it seems to be defined as "anything that will force you to shell out more bucks for a new cell phone." But what it really means is things that used to be big and complicated get smaller and simpler — and sometimes less expensive.

Device convergence meant that PDAs and cell phones became a single device — the smartphone. But that is so last week. The next big thing in convergence will be access convergence, in which my cell phone connects my laptop to the Internet, or my laptop connects my cell phone to the Internet, depending on which makes more sense at the time. What's the difference between a cellular network and Wi-Fi? The right answer should be "none," and access convergence will get us there within the next couple of years.

Access convergence doesn't mean I'll carry around fewer devices. It does mean that I'll get more use out of them. Smartphones are cool, but there's still no substitute for an SVGA screen and a full keyboard. And cell network service is really good these days — I can't remember the last time I totally lost a signal — but cell phone service is outrageously expensive and isn't getting any cheaper.

Each of us will become our own miniature wireless local-area network on the hoof.

Currently, Wi-Fi access for my laptop is hardly ubiquitous. Despite all the hype, a hotspot when you need one can be harder to find than true love. But hotspots are rapidly getting easier to find, and unless you're in an airport or other captive-audience location, wireless Web access is cheap.

In my distressingly suburban neighborhood outside Boston, for example, Wi-Fi hotspots are being used as a marketing differentiator by Starbucks (where it costs), Panera Breads (where it's free), and a laundromat (where I haven't been yet because I've got my own washer and dryer). As the price of broadband access continues its tumble, this trend will continue, so that virtually any public place that invites people to sit down will offer cheap or free Wi-Fi (which in my neighborhood means two more coffeehouses, a couple of hotels and motels, a major shopping mall, a hospital, an independent bookstore, the public library, and several hundred Dunkin' Donuts shops, a chain that blankets New England like the dew).

So what's going to happen? The next generation of all our wearable digital equipment — the stuff we carry around with us all the time, like our laptops and cellphones and music players and PDAs — will be equipped with Bluetooth or the recently announced Wireless USB so that each of us will become our own miniature wireless local-area network on the hoof. All our devices will communicate, and we'll be able to use whichever device we want to use on whichever network we have to use. Ideally, this would even enable least-cost routing, so that if I were at a hotspot I could route my cell phone calls through my laptop to use VoIP and save a few pennies.

And here's the coolest part: Once we can connect our laptops or video projectors or music players to any network and access the Internet, what will we access? Our own stuff! All the music and photos and documents and blog entries and HTML code we've written — all the files we keep on our desktop PCs. We can pay for a service like GoToMyPC or Laplink Everywhere, or we can set up a device like Axentra's Net-Box and run it all ourselves, with our own Web and mail servers, and local backup to boot.This isn't Buck Rogers world-of-tomorrow sci-fi, either. The piece of all this that's most conspicuous in its absence is the cell-phone-to-laptop communication. But real soon now — maybe in 18 months, maybe in a couple of years — you'll fly across the country, and when you get there you'll use your laptop, make your calls, play your tunes, show your PowerPoints, and refigure your spreadsheets, exactly as you would at home. You'll work smaller and simpler and easier. No hunting for hotspots, no worrying about network coverage, no "damn, I left that file at home." And you'll thank access convergence.

David DeJean is Editor of Desktop Pipeline.

Got the idea? Submit your Next Big Thing entry now!
The iEverything
By Fredric Paul

In five years, cell phones will be history.

So will PDAs, of course. And laptops, too. iPods and other MP3 players will be silent. Digital cameras? Only in the picture for professional photographers. GPS devices will be totally lost. GameBoys and other portable entertainment devices won't be having any fun either.Don't worry, though. I'm not saying you won't be able to talk to your friends and colleagues, work on documents, listen to music, snap pictures, find out where you are, or entertain yourself while waiting for the subway.

Many mobile devices share bits and pieces of the same technology — there's simply no reason not to put them all in the same device.

I'm just saying that you won't have to carry a pile of separate, dedicated devices to do it. Turns out that many of those functions share bits and pieces of pretty much the same technology — there's simply no reason not to put them all in the same device.

Fortunately, in five years, we won't have to. Instead, there will be a new class of all-in-one portable devices — I call them iEverythings — that will meld vastly improved versions of all these functions into a single device about the size of today's smartphones.

Here's a sample set of specs and functions:

  • 200 GB hard drive

  • Global GPS

  • 5 megapixel, 3x optical zoom digital camera

  • Built-in 2 x 3-inch full-color screen

  • Projector to display a full 1024 x 768 screen on any white surface

  • Built-in QWERTY thumb keyboard

  • Laser-projected virtual keyboard for full-size touch-typing on any flat surface

  • Tri-band cellular voice and data

  • High-speed Wi-Fi

  • The ability to seamlessly use whatever network is cheapest and fastest at any given moment (a.k.a. least-cost routing)

  • Short Message Service, e-mail, and instant-messaging capability, on a choice of networks

  • Satellite radio reception

  • Full video playback

  • Stereo speakers and headphone jack

  • Ability to run regular PC and PalmOS games, as well as proprietary games (early versions of this are already out there)

  • A new high-capacity, small-size portable storage media to hold large amounts of pre-recorded content, including games and movies

  • Voice activation for all commonly used functions

  • Simple synchronization to other computers

  • Versions available to run various operating systems, including Windows, PalmOS, Linux, etc.

  • 24-hour constant-use battery life, 1-week standby time

  • Cost: Who cares? People would pay just about anything for all this

OK, so maybe we won't have all of these features in place by 2010. Some of them might still have to come in add-ons — like flexible screens or fabric keyboards, for example — for when you really need them. But vendors are already selling devices that combine several of these functions into one device. And I'm willing to bet that trend continues to include most of functions described above, plus plenty of other stuff that we haven't even thought of yet.I'm already saving my money — not to mention space in my pocket.

Fredric Paul is Editor in Chief of TechWeb.

Got the idea? Submit your Next Big Thing entry now!
Biometrics: Beyond Security
By Valerie Potter

Your index finger's going to get awfully tired over the next few years.

Fingerprint scanners are already becoming popular as security devices for laptops, corporate networks, cell phones, and even cars. Some systems have you press your finger firmly on the scanner, while others require a rapid swipe. Either way, you'll be doing a lot of pointing.Other biometric tools — devices that establish an individual's identity by analyzing physiological or behavioral characteristics — are on the rise as well. Lately we've heard about Japanese ATMs that scan customers' palms before dispensing money or conducting other bank transactions, kiosks in the Sydney airport that use facial recognition technology to match people with passports, and a planned national database of iris scans to help track missing children right here in the United States.

These systems are all designed to identify people for reasons of security, the most obvious use for biometric technology. But in the next five years we're going to see biometrics spread far beyond the realm of security.

For starters, biometric readers are showing up in employee time clocks. When your palm is your punch card, a buddy can't sign out for you, so forget about sneaking away early on Friday afternoon.

Then there are the Swiss biometric e-voting booths for the blind. They use fingerprint scanners for authentication, interactive audio to guide the user through the voting process, and voice-recognition technology to record the voter's responses.

When your palm is your punch card, a buddy can't sign out for you, so forget about sneaking away early on Friday afternoon.

But when it comes to day-to-day use of biometrics, it's all about shopping. Leave the checkbook at home, ditch your credit cards, forget that silly wallet phone — all you need is your finger, as grocery shoppers at Cub Foods in Minnesota and the Piggly Wiggly chain in Georgia and South Carolina have discovered.

Users register for the free Pay By Touch service at a kiosk in the store or online at www.paybytouch.com. Then they go shopping. When it's time to check out, they place a finger on the scanner, enter their phone number, and select their method of payment. The money owed is automatically debited from their checking account or charged to their credit card. How cool is that?

A Piggly Wiggly shopper discovers the power of her finger.Image courtesy of Pay By Touch.

This one's going to be big, folks. We're not just talking groceries. Anywhere you can spend money you'll be able to use a biometric payment system — department stores, specialty stores, restaurants, movie theaters, gas stations...You won't even need quarters for laundry anymore.

And you can bet that advertising will find a way to get in on the act. It may not go as far as the interactive billboards in the Spielberg sci-fi thriller Minority Report, which scan the retinas of passersby and make personalized sales pitches. But stores will most certainly track your purchases and market to you accordingly. It's not a whole lot different than today's "club" or reward cards, except your fingertip is the card.It won't stop there. How about a swipe of your finger to confirm that you're old enough to get into that R-rated movie or buy that bottle of Southern Comfort? Skip right by the front desk when you arrive at your hotel — a finger-swipe at the scanner outside your room both opens the door and checks you in. Knocked out cold in an accident? Don't worry — an iris scan at the hospital will match you up with your complete medical history in a secure national database.

Starry-eyed idealism aside, the widespread use of biometrics does raise some very real concerns. There are nasty privacy issues, not to mention the always-possible tech glitches — and what if somebody chops off your finger? But the technology is vastly improved from just a few years ago, and it will only get better. And for most people, privacy and safety concerns pale beside the convenience and sheer coolness of biometric identification.

Get your index finger ready — it's time to shop!

Valerie Potter is Features Editor for the TechWeb Pipelines.

Got the idea? Submit your Next Big Thing entry now!
Bots Make Good Buddies
By Cora NucciPeople can be so exasperating. At first, it's all sunshine and lollipops. They'll cook you a meal, rub your feet, even help around the house. But one of these days, you'll hand your sweetie a mop and bucket, and he'll be all, "I'm gonna go shoot some hoops."

It will happen that fast, so you have to be prepared.

Robot helpers may be the answer. Consider: They aren't distracted by other interests (stuffing a ball through a hoop holds zero appeal), they don't think that kicking a dustball under the bed is the equivalent of sweeping, and they don't expect applause when they finally pick their smelly socks off the living room rug.

Let Roomba do your dirty work.Image courtesy of iRobot.

You probably already know about iRobot's Roomba vacuum cleaner. This is a robotic disc that methodically inhales filth from your floors while you thumb through a magazine and think about dinner.

Well, while you weren't looking, robotic floor cleaning technology made a magnum leap. In a few months, iRobot will introduce Scooba, Roomba's floor-scrubbing cousin, which is supposed to vacuum, wash, and dry floors "in a single pass." For just a few hundred dollars, you could be out of the floor-cleaning business entirely by the holiday season.And by 2010, household robots could be answering the door, raising your kids, and tending to your elderly parents.

But life has more to offer than sparkling floors and well-scrubbed seniors. Maybe you've been wanting to take ballroom dancing lessons, but your only potential dance partners are a little fleshy, and frankly, not that into it. Meet the Partner Ballroom Dance Robot (PBDR), which made its dance-floor debut at the Prototype Robot Exhibition at Expo 2005 in Aichi, Japan, earlier this month. Developed by scientists at Tokhuro University in Japan, it's able to predict the movements of its human partner and react accordingly on its three wheels. In language more familiar to non-scientists, it's hot to trot.

By 2010, household robots could beanswering the door, raising your kids, andtending to your elderly parents.

All that bot and booty shaking will eventually leave you parched. If you're like me and often find yourself competing for the bartender's attention with a clutch of taller, blonder bar patrons, cheer up. A Glasgow entrepreneur has unveiled the Barhand, a vending machine that dispenses bottles of beer with an electronic robotic hand. The Barhand doesn't play favorites and won't flirt with the other customers, so you'll get your drink more quickly than humanly possible.

The Barhand — or Beer Bot, as I like to think of it — has yet to legitimately offer its first cold one, pending Scottish licensing requirements. Plans for bringing it to the U.S. market are unknown.While I have no problem letting robots clean my floors, take me dancing, and ply me with booze, I draw the line at automated dentistry.

An Israeli company called Tactile Technologies has developed a device it claims can perform dental implants. In the future, the company hopes to provide robotic devices that will drill holes in teeth — presumably at the direction of a licensed practicing dentist. But we can't know that for sure.

Trials will begin this summer in Europe and the U.S., around the same time that I'll be buying robot insurance.

Cora Nucci is a Senior Editor at TechWeb.

Got the idea? Submit your Next Big Thing entry now!
Nanomachines
By Matt McKenzieMost of us got our first, and perhaps only, impression of nanotechnology from the 1960s sci-fi classic Fantastic Voyage, watching Raquel Welch cruise some guy's circulatory system equipped with a tiny submarine, a tight jump suit, and a bunch of co-stars whose names I forgot 20 years ago.

Today, nanotech isn't science fiction; it's a growing industry involved in everything from pharmaceuticals to fashion. Scientists and engineers are now able to handle materials at a molecular level, manipulate them, and turn them into trousers that won't require washing until the year 2800. (You, however, should continue bathing — please.)

Are molecular assemblers too dangerous to build or too beneficial not to build?

Yet this is child's play compared to what's coming: nanomachines, devices built out of individual atoms that perform specific tasks. Some of them are familiar-looking (gears, pincers); others, such as the molecular assembler pictured here, are completely new.

Such machines could someday turn a mountain of dirt into enough food to feed everyone on the planet, forever and in abundance. They could repair injuries at the cellular level, and cure any illness. They could, as author Arthur C. Clarke speculated, produce such abundance that money becomes pointless.

They could also reduce every living thing on the planet to dust within a few days.Physicist and Manhattan Project alumnus Richard Feynman laid out his famous nanotech vision in a 1959 Caltech talk, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom" — a document that history may place alongside Darwin's The Origin Of Species or even Newton's Principia. Yet Feynman's ideas remained unexplored for nearly 30 years, until researcher K. Eric Drexler took up the cause, coining the term "nanotechnology" in his 1986 work Engines of Creation. Drexler's theories on how and why to build nanomachines were, to put it mildly, controversial; many scientists insisted they were about as plausible in our lifetimes as death rays and teleporters.

As it turns out, "many scientists" were full of baloney. In April, 1997, Nature reported that Australian researchers had built the first working nanomachine, a self-assembled biosensor capable of mimicking the human cell wall in pharmaceutical research. Last year, a team of scientists at UCLA and the University of Bologna, Italy, built a "nano-actuator," two mechanically interlocked components a whopping 2.5 nanometers high that move a platform up and down a molecular tripod. And last month, a research team at the University of California at Berkeley announced a prototype nano-oscillator — a key to creating onboard power sources for nanomachines — that fits inside a box 200 nanometers (that's two ten-thousandths of a millimeter) square.

Machines capable of rearranging things one atom at a time could cause problems if they decide to rearrange, say, you instead of a pile of dirt.

Private researchers are less inclined to discuss their work, but you can bet they're making similar strides toward nano-robots, nano-factories — and, one assumes, nano-slackers hanging around the nano-water cooler. Today, you'll find organizations such as IBM, Xerox, Motorola, and Hewlett-Packard getting into the nano-act, and while I admit I'm being ambitious in calling nanomachines the Next Big Thing, you can find credible estimates that the first working nanomachine will flex its micro-muscles as early as 2010 and no later than 2020.

Now, what was that about turning you into dust? One of the main controversies in nanomachine research today concerns self-replication: giving molecular machines the ability to replicate themselves, indefinitely and in infinite quantities. Self-replication could enable all kinds of neat things — feeding the world, for example — at a marginal production cost of zero. However, invisible, infinitely replicating machines capable of rearranging things one atom at a time could also cause problems — such as what might happen if the replication codes get mangled, and these "assemblers" decide to rearrange, say, you instead of a pile of dirt.Anyway, we have time to weigh our options: self-replication is a much more difficult challenge than simply building the things.

And build them we will. Nanomachines — things science treated as a joke less than 20 years ago — are marching their invisible little butts off the drawing board and into the world's laboratories, factories, and ultimately its living rooms and underwear drawers. At this rate, I wouldn't bet against that death ray and teleporter before long, either.

Matt McKenzie is Editor of Linux Pipeline.

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Privacy Under Siege
By Mitch Wagner

You've read our Next Big Thing picks. Now tell us about yours for a chance to win an iPod.Enter Now!

I caught a glimmer of the future three years ago. While on a business trip, I decided to stop in at one of the then-new coffee shops equipped with Wi-Fi. I was trying unsuccessfully to connect to the network when the proprietor came in. Looking puzzled, he asked if I was Mitch Wagner. He said I had a call and handed me his cordless phone.By then, I was pretty puzzled too. I'd entered the shop on a whim. The staff at the coffeeshop didn't know who I was, because I'd never been in there before. Literally no one in the world knew I was in that coffeeshop. So why was I getting calls there?

It was my own personal introduction to the 21st century — a century in which privacy is dead.

The erosion of privacy has snuck up on us. ID badges track our movements around the workplace, and electronic toll-paying systems like New York's EZPass track our movements on the road. Cameras festoon traffic lights, ATMs, retail stores, and thousands of other public places to make sure we're obeying the law.

Companies collect massive data warehouses about us, and they're about as trustworthy guarding that information as frat boys set to watch over beer. ChoicePoint, LexisNexis, Stanford University, Bank of America, and the state of Montana are among the organizations that recently lost millions of confidential consumer records.

You're more exposed on the Internet than if you were standing stark naked in the town square on the Fourth of July. Online merchants track your movements using cookies, and are looking to do more. Both Google and Amazon.com's A9 search engine want you to register; they're offering customized, targeted searches and keeping a database of those searches as they go. Attackers plant spyware on your computer that can track your every keystroke and mouse-click and send the data off to criminals.Feel like getting felt up by strangers? Just go to the airport and get selected for a random search. As an added bonus, the cops rummage through your luggage and make you take off your shoes. Soon, they'll be able to see you naked; they're testing a controversial X-ray machine that allows them to peer under clothing and see whatever's there, whether weapons or bare skin.

You're more exposed on the Internetthan you would be standing stark nakedin the town square on the Fourth of July.

In fact, many of the trends we've been writing about in this article will diminish privacy:

  • Cell phones will be used to make electronic payments, which are much more traceable than cash.

  • IPTV, television over the Internet, will permit advertisers and networks to track what you're watching, and there's no technological reason the government can't as well.

  • The coming wave of floor-cleaning, elder-care-giving, ballroom-dancing, bartending robots can become great surveillance tools. Just stick in a camera.

  • Biometrics will grow more prevalent, using fingerprints, face recognition, and retina-scanning to provide identification and access control. This eliminates one of the chief obstacles to surveillance: fragmentation. No one can definitively say that the "Jon Smith" on your driver's license is the same as the "Jonathan Smith" on your credit cards, the "jsmith" who logs into the New York Times, and the "jon_smith" who has a Gmail account. But if you track activities with biometrics, there's no way — short of radical plastic surgery — to keep your identities separate.

  • With ubiquitous networking, your cell phone will connect to your laptop and your iPod and all of it will connect to the Internet, wherever you are. Being always connected means your location is always traceable.

That's how I got that phone call in that coffee shop three years ago. The guy on the phone was tech support for the coffee shop's Wi-Fi network. He knew my name because I'd typed it into their home page in my Web browser, along with my credit card number. He knew what phone number to reach me at because the coffee shop was his customer. Remember I said I'd been having trouble connecting to the network? He could see that on his end and he was calling to help me solve the problem.

It was great that he was so responsive — but also creepy.

Change is often creepy at first, though. Pretty soon we'll get used to constant surveillance, and our children will take it for granted that they're never alone and never unwatched.

Mitch Wagner is Senior Editor for the TechWeb Pipelines.

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