Technology Trends to Watch

Walt Mossberg: The lucky thing about having this is the thing you write about several times a week is that it’s always changing.

I think if I were to just pick two or three interesting trends right now, one I think is the cell phone, or the device formerly known as the cell phone, which really has less and less to do with making voice calls.

The latest example is the iPhone from Apple, which is really a rather powerful little computer you can hold in your pocket. The Blackberry is also a computer. The Trio is also a computer. But the iPhone sort of takes it to a new level.

The evolution of that is going to be fascinating to watch. I believe the personal computer as we have known it has already peaked. I don’t mean that it’s going away. It’s still going to be the dominant device; but I think it has peaked because I think there are going to be a lot of other devices, and a lot of other methods for doing the digital things we have thought you needed a computer to do – a personal computer.

Closely related is the whole question of wireless networks. Basically they have been the province of huge, monopolistic, utility-minded companies who I like to compare to Soviet ministries who I think have tried to control far too much of the chain. The hardware, the software, everything you want to do on a device on somebody’s cellular network has, at least in the United States, and at least up to this point [Sep 2007], been heavily controllable by Verizon, and AT&T, and Sprint, and T-Mobile.

I think that’s about to blow up. I don’t mean that you’re going to wake up one day and the whole system is going to be blown up. I mean, I think we are just on the verge of seeing power flow away from those companies and flow to either tech companies like Google, or Apple, or companies like that; or consumers, or some combination of both.

I think Wi-Fi and WiMax and some of these other technologies have the possibility of blowing that open, and I think you’re going to see more freedom in the creation of software and services on those devices. So that’s another big thing.

I also think the less you hear the word “Internet,” the more integrated into our lives it will be. I compare the Internet to the electrical grid. The electrical grid is all around you. It’s in your home. It’s in your office. It’s in your hotel room. And there is an uncounted number of things that plug into the electrical grid. The television cameras we’re using to record this interview plug into the electrical grid. So does the toaster oven, and the electric toothbrush, and the hairdryer that you might have used this morning.

But you did not think to yourself when you put your toast in your toaster oven, “Hey, I’m using the electrical grid.” Or, “I’m going to use the electrical grid.” It would be laughable for you to say that.

I think the same thing is going to happen with the Internet. Instead of being seen, as a lot of people do, as some sort of activity you perform on a device that happens to be called a “personal computer,” the Internet is really an enormous grid or ocean of information – communications services, commerce, marketing, entertainment, all of these things. Information.

And there are going to be innumerable devices that will connect to it, tap into it, and just use enough of it to perform whatever function it is they are good at doing, in whatever context people want to use them in. So for instance, you wouldn’t necessarily expect a pocket-sized device to do the same thing as a device with a larger display. You wouldn’t necessarily be surprised, I think, in 10 years that your microwave oven is plugged into the Internet. I think it will be. On the other hand, it won’t be plugged into the Internet for the purpose of you getting your e-mail on the door of the microwave. It’ll be plugged in so that when you put a package of frozen food in there, the oven will just read the barcode. It will have a connection to the Internet. It will have a database that will be constantly updated, and it will be able to properly heat up the food. That’s the only thing it will need the Internet to do, but it will need the Internet to do it.

So the Internet is a grid. Many devices, many kinds of software, many kinds of services running on those devices, all of which take advantage of the grid.

Already this is true to some extent, but it’s gonna become universal in 10 years. Whenever you watch television, you’re going to be on the Internet. Whenever you make a phone call, you’re going to be on the Internet. And nobody’s going to say, “I’m going to go online tonight and look this up.”

I think in 10 or 15 years when you see movies from today where people say, “I found this online. I’m going on the Web. Let’s go online and check it out,” people are going to laugh because we’re always going to be online. And so those are some of the big things that I think are going on.

 

Recorded on: Sep 13, 2007

 

Watch for big changes in cell phones, wireless networks, and personal computing.

Related Articles

Major study: Drug overdoses over a 38-year period reveal hidden trends

It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction

From the study: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6408/eaau1184
Surprising Science
  • It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
  • If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
  • The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Keep reading Show less

Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
  • You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
  • This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.

Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.

Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.

The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.


How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

Image: NASA
Surprising Science
  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."