The holodeck: Current status.

A simulator for entertainment. U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 1st Class Stephanie Souderlund

A simulator for entertainment. U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 1st Class Stephanie Souderlund

In the coming weeks I will examine a few technologies that could function like a holodeck but first I’ll examine how far we are today.

Lets start with the basics here: What is a holodeck? The concept of the holodeck originates from Star Trek The Next Generation. It is a large room in which reality can be simulated. It is a room which uses a combination of holographic images, teleportation technology, replication technology, tractor beams and force fields to create a lifelike representation of the world (whichever world that might be). The holodeck as described in Star Trek is fiction of course and quite possibly will never be a reality as described. There are however several technologies that will or could basically do the same thing.

First off the personal computer and gaming systems. You might think it is a big step from these to a holodeck but actually a lot of things needed for a holodeck are actually already incorporated in these systems. They render their virtual worlds in 3D, contain information about what are solid objects, how you move over certain terrain, great gaming features and more. Of course a solid object is just solid so a wall and a person will both feel like solid brick but still many information in games is usable for a holodeck. of course the biggest issue is that you cannot enter the world yourself. You will always need to rely on a screen and some kind of input device. (although the Wii, Xbox kinect and Playstation Eye take a few first steps towards eliminating the clumsy (unnatural) controller altogether. On the plus side these systems are cheap and have come a long way in just a few decades.

A step up is a system called the CAVE. It has three or more walls (sometimes including floor and ceiling) on which 3D images are projected. With 3D glasses (similar to the ones for your 3D tv) you get a holographic simulation. By walking around an object you can view it from all sides like an actual holographic image. With new technologies (similar to the aforementioned Xbox Kninect etc.) you are even able to interact with these objects to some degree. The lack of a physical form is a big disadvantage however. To be able to truly interact with an object you need to be able to handle it as well. That is why most video’s of people interacting with virtual objects seems so clumsy, you just cannot get an idea of weight, form and feel of an object. Another big disadvantage of this system is the space you need (it is a room within a room so you need an awful amount of space) and the money a system like this costs.
The last problem is that it is unfit for young children and some people experience headaches when using the system. This is due to the actual technology. The information our eyes gets says an object is somewhere in the room, the actual object is on a screen however and so the eyes shift focus between the screen and where the object is expected to be. This rapid focussing between the two causes the headaches but is also why children shouldn’t use it. Their eyes are still developing and the 3D technology can hurt the development of the eyes.

The best holodeck equivalent  we currently have are the big simulators used to train pilots, ship captains, Formula One drivers or are used in an amusement park as entertainment. They act and feel like the actual thing and by the use of hydraulic pistons simulate movement of the ship, car or plane. The latest version, based in the Netherlands, is even able to simulate gravity (or the lack thereof). The biggest disadvantages of these machines is that they are very large, require a crew to operate (both for maintenance and running the training), cost a lot of money and require you to purchase a new machine every time you want to use it for a different plane/car/boat.

Love sex marriage

Marcelino Rapayla Jr. 2009 (CC BY)

Marcelino Rapayla Jr. 2009 (CC BY)

There is a danger for human kind. Robots! This might be the plot line to a bad 50’s science fiction film with killer robots. I, however, am talking about the dangers of love. When robots get more and more human-like we will find it easier and easier to fall in love with them.

You might find it impossible to believe we can fall in love with robots but even today we have a small group of people in love with objects. Some bought a sex doll (a life size doll which looks and feels ‘real’ and is anatomically correct) while others are in love with even stranger objects like cars and the Berlin Wall. They are only the (sometimes slightly crazy) forefront of what we’ll eventually all succumb to.

We humans are naturally talented at what psychologists call personification. We attribute animals and inanimate objects with human emotions and behaviour. We feel our pet understands us better then our partner, we scream at our laptop when it isn’t working and we try bribing our car into starting on a cold winters day. And if we can scream at a computer we can easily fall in love with a robot which has actual human traits.

The problem is that robots will be better then potential human partners at seducing someone. They will be a superstimulus for us. A superstimulus is an exaggerated stimulus. An artificial stimulus (for instance by a parasitic species) that is not natural to the species. When humans fall in love we feel it is our perfect match. More realistically it is a close match but not perfect. When the initial love wears off we start to see things that bother us about the other. A robot however will not have these faults and be a perfect love compliment to your own.

A perfect love compliment is different from a ‘perfect lover’ Disney style romantic comedy type of guy/girl. We are not all waiting for the romantic, sweet prince(ss) on a white horse. If you are a bit of a rebel you’ll want a rebel lover, if your a bit dominant you’ll want a lover that is a bit submissive. If you love to travel, you want a traveller. The robot will exactly compliment what you want in your dream man or woman.

You don’t need to program it either. It will learn everything about you via advanced data mining algorithms and find a personality to compliment you. This works better because there usually is a (big) difference between what we think we want and what we actually want. Data mining is a process in which large quantities of data are analysed. It is used for instance on social media to personalize your ads so you are more likely to buy the advertised products or on Amazon to show you products you are more likely to buy.

In science fiction they argue people will eventually prefer the real love of a human above the artificial love of a robot. Their argument is that because you know it is not real it will feel inadequate and cannot be a true substitute for ‘real’ love. Good sentiment but totally false of course. We see it for instance in massive multi online games in which people feel the loss of a digital sword they worked hard for as real as if they actually had that real sword and lost it. We are in the end just animals reacting to stimuli, real or not. Our brain might distinguish between the two on a cognitive level but on an emotional level it cannot.

And so, when everybody has a robot lover we will stop reproducing and eventually die out. Extremely happy, but still. Only thing that could save us is via artificial insemination one way or another. The thing we luckily have going for us is that humans, as any other species, has a natural instinct to reproduce offspring.

A geek’s best friend?

The Hope Diamond gets it's deep blue colour from it's boron impurities. The boron not only gives the diamond a beautiful colour but it also makes the diamond semi-conductive. (Photo by Chip Clark, copyright Smithsonian Institute)

The Hope Diamond gets it’s deep blue colour from it’s boron impurities. The boron not only gives the diamond a beautiful colour but it also makes the diamond semi-conductive. (Photo by Chip Clark, copyright Smithsonian Institute)

You might know diamonds as a girls best friend but it might soon become a geeks best friend as well. Diamonds promise to replace silicon as the material to build computers from maybe even within the next ten years.

There are a lot of advantages to using diamond over silicon. Most obvious being strength. We all know Diamond to be the strongest (natural) material we have. This is great news for accident prone people who happen to drop their laptop on the floor every once in a while. Though the hard drive might still suffer unless we all adopt (diamond) flash drives.

This is not only true for mechanical energy but diamonds can also resist high temperatures. Where your average silicon chip gets damaged/destroyed at a temperature between 100ºC to 150ºC Diamonds could operate at 1000ºC perhaps (though currently chips running at ‘just’ 500ºC are being designed) eliminating or reducing the need for expensive cooling systems which use up a lot of power in conventional systems. The higher temperature of diamonds also allows chips to run at greater speeds then currently possible. A test had a diamond chip run at 81GHz a gigantic leap from what is possible with current technology.

Other lesser known advantages being that diamond is a good electrical insulator and better at dissipating heat then copper. The excellent qualities of heat dissipation compound to the effects described above.

Example of noise in digital photography. Image is brightened to make the noise more visible. (Van der Coelen CC BY).

Example of noise in digital photography. Image is brightened to make the noise more visible. (Van der Coelen, CC BY).

The electric insulation decreases the likelihood of current ‘jumping’ from one lane to the other (this is the noise you see in digital photography in dark conditions for instance). Better yet is that by adding certain atoms (impurities) like boron you can actually make diamond a semi-conductor allowing you to make an entire chip from diamond without the need of other materials.

For now the cost of diamond chips is still biggest hurdle it still is higher than that of silicon and will need to come down before we will see them in computers. It will most likely first be used in super computers and slowly trickle down to consumer oriented computers. We will first see hybrid computers with only a few specialised chips of diamond before entire diamond systems will become available. I, however, can’t wait until they do.

organic and traditional farming, a choice between two evils.

Image by (CC BY)

In this post I’ll ask you to choose between two evils. Do you want organic grown food or do you want your food from the traditional industrialized farm? Although some make organic food out to be the only way forward there are some significant downsides to it as well.

First the problems with the more traditional farms. They use a lot of pesticides, artificial manure and other chemicals to increase the yield of their crop and promote growth. Large area’s of land become a monoculture with only one race of plants. Hurting biodiversity and putting our food sources at risk of diseases.

On the other hand we have the organic farms. They are free of pesticides use natural manure and rotate crops to keep the soil healthy. The downside is that the yield per acre is lower. You simply need more space to feed the same amount of people. And there are some indications that this gets worse as more farmers turn to organic farming because pesticides from other fields can’t contaminate the organic fields and indirectly protect the fields of organic farms. We already cut down a lot of tropical rainforests in favour of the food production. If we were to turn to organic food as a solution for the masses we might as well say goodbye to the rainforests now.

The problems are worse in both industries when we take into account the animal farming. In the traditional farms animals don’t have a lot of room and the number of animals kept in one place promotes disease. To maximize production growth hormones are added to an already high calorie diet. To make sure animals aren’t getting sick they use loads of antibiotics. This decreases effectiveness of antibiotics in general and brings with it the very real danger of antibiotics becoming useless. Resistant bacteria are already creating major problems in hospitals around the world.

In the organic farm animals get more room, get a more natural feed and take a longer time to grow. Though this is great for the animals it also means that you need a larger farm for fewer animals. And since the feed is organic as well you get a compound effect of space required needed to get a same amount of meat. Also the impact on the climate per animal is higher due to their more natural diet. Though there is a decrease in the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) this is made up by an increase in the amount of methane (CH4) and laughing gas (N2O) they produce which are more powerful greenhouse gasses and therefore have a greater net impact on the environment.

The biggest trouble with meat industry is the enormous amount of resources it requires. To produce a kilo of beef you need 9 kilograms of food and 15.000 litres of water (20 pounds and 4000 gallons respectively). The difference between these is negligible between both industries. They just require huge spaces of land to be sacrificed to produce the meat we eat. Though pork and chicken have better returns it still is a huge demand on the fresh water supply and the food chain.

The best thing would be if we would eat less meat. And some initiatives like the meat-free Thursday could have a major impact if widely adopted. The trouble is that we don’t want to eat less meat, on the contrary as more people can afford it the consumption will only increase. This is because we are programmed to eat meat and like it because meat used to be scarce. Also eating meat is a status symbol, it signifies you are wealthy enough to eat a more expensive type of food. If that is not bad enough there is a psychological phenomenon at work. The not in my backyard phenomenon. Most people think we should eat less meat as a whole at least if it doesn’t affect us personally. When it threatens to affect us personally we will resist the change.

So if the standard farm isn’t good and the organic industry isn’t a good alternative what should we do then? We’ll combine the best of both worlds. You see this in greenhouses. They reduced the number of pesticides needed to grow tomato’s and paprikas to almost zero in the Netherlands by using insects to fight pests that can destroy the crop while they can still use artificial manure to increase the yield of the harvest. This can be implemented relatively easily around the world. In the meat industry test are ongoing to see if antibiotic use can be lowered by adding garlic to the diet because it has antibiotic properties. Results so far are optimistic.

A solution for our meat problem could be insects. They require relatively little water and food to grow when compared to chickens for instance, let alone pigs or cows. Insects have also been eaten traditionally around the world as a source of protein. The trouble is that as people get wealthier they start to favour meat too insects. In the Western World it is even worse as the eating of insects is considered unacceptable. A solution could be grounding it up into burgers and rebranding it.  The eating of imitation crab became acceptable when we started calling it surimi. By grounding it we don’t need to be reminded of the origin which is a plus for most consumers who rather don’t like to be reminded that their beef came from a cow either.

Another solution could be the use of algae as a basis for the animal feed. In contrast to soy and corn it can be grown anywhere provided you can get water there and it is highly nutritious. Algae can be fed using the manure from the animals in effect recycling the waste. At the moment algae farms cannot compete with soy just yet though, being a factor ten more expensive. This will be overcome when it is produced on a larger scale or when crops start to fail more often due to more extreme weather patterns as a consequence of global warming.

A last solution, still far off is just growing the meat we need. When we eat beef we mostly eat muscle tissue with a bit of fat. The rest, organs, bones and less desired meat cuts, are pretty much waste products. Wouldn’t it be great if we could only grow the bits we need? This is exactly what researchers are trying to do. Only grow muscle tissue in large vats and eliminate a lot of unnecessary waste products. It will be years before we actually get to this stage however. Currently it costs an enormous amount of money to grow a small piece of meat which isn’t even tasty either. When we do however, we will see new types of meat hitting the shelves. Fancy a roast of lion perhaps?