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Our Fear of Artificial Intelligence

Wed, 02/11/2015 - 00:00

A true AI might ruin the world—but that assumes it’s possible at all.

Years ago I had coffee with a friend who ran a startup. He had just turned 40. His father was ill, his back was sore, and he found himself overwhelmed by life. “Don’t laugh at me,” he said, “but I was counting on the singularity.”

Why We Don’t Have Battery Breakthroughs

Tue, 02/10/2015 - 00:00

A promising advance that came to nothing suggests what it will take to make cheap batteries for electric cars.

Electric cars are quick and quiet, with a range more than long enough for most commutes. If you want a car with extremely fast acceleration, the Tesla Model S is hard to beat. And, of course, electric vehicles avoid the pollution associated with conventional cars, including emissions of carbon dioxide from burning gasoline. Yet they account for a tiny fraction of automotive sales, mainly because the batteries that propel them are expensive and need to be recharged frequently.

Q&A: Steven Chu

Mon, 02/09/2015 - 00:00

The former energy secretary, who has begun chasing emerging technologies again, looks back on his successes and failures in government.

What left you the most frustrated or disappointed at the Department of Energy?

Additive Manufacturing Is Reshaping Aviation

Fri, 02/06/2015 - 17:45

Advanced manufacturing technologies are leading to smaller jet engines.

The aviation company Pratt & Whitney is exploring whether technology known as additive manufacturing could be used to develop more compact jet engines that could make commercial airplanes lighter and more fuel efficient.

IBM Says Watson Can Help Declutter Your In-Box

Thu, 02/05/2015 - 15:11

IBM’s new messaging software uses algorithms to learn how to organize your e-mail better .

Over 100 billion work e-mails are exchanged each day, but research suggests that only around a quarter of those are actually essential. IBM hopes to lighten that load. Later this month the company will open up a trial of a new online e-mail service called Verse, which uses algorithms to work out which messages and people are most important to you.

Holding Data Hostage: The Perfect Internet Crime?

Wed, 02/04/2015 - 16:49

Thousands of people will have their personal files held hostage this year, by software that uses virtually unbreakable encryption.

Every so often someone invents a new way of making money on the Internet that earns wild profits, attracts countless imitators, and reshapes what it means to be online. Unfortunately, such a shift took place last year in the world of online crime, with the establishment of sophisticated malicious software known as ransomware as a popular and reliable business model for criminals.

A Startup’s Neural Network Can Understand Video

Tue, 02/03/2015 - 12:00

Software that understands what it sees in video could lead to new forms of advertising, or make video editing easier.

In recent years, researchers at companies including Google and Facebook have made impressive breakthroughs in training software to understand what’s going on in images, thanks to a technique known as deep learning. Now a startup called Clarifai is offering a service that uses deep learning to understand video.

A Battery for Electronics That Lasts Twice as Long

Mon, 02/02/2015 - 17:20

A startup called SolidEnergy has developed a kind of lithium-ion battery that stores far more energy.

A new kind of lithium-ion battery could let portable electronics such as smartphones and smart watches last twice as long between charges.

The Purpose of Silicon Valley

Fri, 01/30/2015 - 00:00

Capital and engineering talent have been flocking to seemingly trivial mobile apps. But would we really be better off if more startups instead went directly after big problems?

The view from Mike Steep’s office on Palo Alto’s Coyote Hill is one of the greatest in Silicon Valley.

Why the Time Seems Right for a Space-Based Internet Service

Tue, 01/27/2015 - 00:00

New micro-satellite technology is enabling satellite Internet services that could reach billions of new users.

Providing Internet access from orbiting satellites—a concept that seemed to have died with the excesses of the dot-com boom—has returned thanks to SpaceX founder (and dot-com billionaire) Elon Musk. And while such a service would be expensive and risky to deploy, recent technological trends mean it’s no longer so out-of-this-world.

Technology Repaints the Payment Landscape

Mon, 01/26/2015 - 00:00

As technology-driven payment ideas give cash a run for its money, the big winners could be established banks and credit card companies.

In developed economies, money has been digitizing for decades. Few Westerners touch a paycheck anymore. Through direct deposit, digital money is transferred electronically from our employer to our bank account every pay period. A similar process moves contributions into our 401(k) accounts or zaps money over to pay the rent, the utility bill, a student loan, or any other expense.

Alipay Leads a Digital Finance Revolution in China

Mon, 01/26/2015 - 00:00

What started as a service to help customers buy goods from Alibaba retailers has grown into a serious finance business all its own.

Not many years ago, Jane Yang, a 26-year-old civil servant in Beijing, paid her landlord in three-month installments with a stack of 100-yuan notes. To pay her utilities—water, electricity, and home Internet bill—she went to three separate banks, where she handed cash to a teller. The process was “very time-consuming and irritating,” she remembers. Even as skyscrapers and gleaming shopping malls cropped up around China’s capital, most middle-class residents had never seen or used a simple checkbook.

A Weekend in Bitcoin City: Arnhem, the Netherlands

Mon, 01/26/2015 - 00:00

Is it possible to live for 48 hours on nothing but Bitcoin?

Propped up next to me on the red sofa in my room at the boutique Hotel Modez in Arnhem, the Netherlands, my iPad has its screen on the Bitcoin exchange ­, and the value of the crypto­currency is dropping, moment by moment. At breakfast one bitcoin had been worth over $400, but the value has been sinking for the past 30 minutes and has now hit $383. I know I’m blowing it.

Resurrecting a Meltdown-Proof Reactor Design

Thu, 01/22/2015 - 15:30

A new molten salt nuclear reactor design could make nuclear power safer and more economical.

A new take on an old reactor design could make nuclear power cleaner and safer, and therefore more competitive with fossil fuels.

Microsoft’s New Idea: A Hologram Headset to Rewrite Reality

Wed, 01/21/2015 - 17:30

A wearable display set for release by Microsoft later this year can augment your world with realistic, interactive virtual objects.

Microsoft today showed off an augmented reality headset slated for release later this year. The compact, visor-style device, called Hololens, generates holograms that make 3-D objects appear to the wearer to be overlaid on the real world.

Microsoft Researchers Get Wrapped Up in Smart Scarf

Wed, 01/21/2015 - 00:00

In the quest to make wearable electronics useful, researchers take a close look at the neck.

Microsoft researchers have created a scarf that can be commanded to heat up and vibrate via a smartphone app, part of an exploration of how the accessory could eventually work with emerging biometric- and emotion-sensing devices. It could, perhaps, soothe you if a sensor on your body determines you’re down—a function that could be particularly useful for people who have disorders such as autism and have trouble managing their feelings.

Hawaii’s Solar Push Strains the Grid

Tue, 01/20/2015 - 00:00

Kauai’s utility takes a second stab at battery storage as solar heads toward 80 percent of peak power.

The prospect of cheaper, petroleum-free power has lured the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC) to quintuple utility-scale solar capacity over the past year, building two 12-megawatt photovoltaic arrays. These facilities are the biggest and a significant contributor to the island’s 78-megawatt peak power supply. When the second plant comes online this summer, peak solar output on Kauai will approach 80 percent of power generation on some days, according to Brad Rockwell, the utility’s power supply manager.

Is Genius Smarter Than Past Attempts to Annotate the Web?

Mon, 01/19/2015 - 00:00

A site that began as place to annotate hip hop lyrics thinks it’s figured out how to spread annotation to the wider Web.

Tom Lehman has a vision of the near future. Everything you see online, whether Taylor Swift lyrics or government press releases, will come with crowdsourced annotations that provide expert commentary. Think of it as an extra layer of knowledge spread by the masses over the entire Web.

Google’s Modular Smartphone to Debut in Puerto Rico

Thu, 01/15/2015 - 16:00

An attempt to release customizable smartphones made up of interchangeable modules is inching forward.

Google’s vision of cheap modular smartphones made up of interchangeable pieces is getting closer to reality. The company showed off the latest prototype on Wednesday, and said that it will start selling its first modular phone in Puerto Rico later this year.

Something Lost in Skype Translation

Thu, 01/15/2015 - 12:00

Skype’s real-time translation software highlights remarkable progress in machine learning—but it still struggles with the subtleties of human communication.

It sometimes seems as if the highest praise an innovative new technology can earn is a credulous comparison to Star Trek. The Oculus Rift is like the Holodeck; 3-D printers are like matter replicators; Qualcomm is even sponsoring an X-Prize contest to build a working tricorder.