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Posted by laura on

Where’s My JetPack?

I did another little slot on the radio the other day, talking about the technologies that futurologists thought would be commonplace by now. There are plenty to choose from that excited us all twenty years ago but remain distant dreams.

Jetpacks for example, have never overcome their various technical challenges. Even if they did, there would serious issues of user error to overcome. Assuming people could be trained to be perfect pilots, there is still the problem of ensuring that no-one runs out of fuel at 5,000 feet.

The authors of the Book of the Future thought that laser guns would be standard issue on the battlefield by now. The last demonstration of a portable military laser I saw was somewhat less than effective. It required sustained contact for a few seconds to cause a mild singeing of the eyebrows. You can just imagine it: “Hold still Mr Bin Laden, I’m trying to shoot you…”

The most distant dream from that book remains the Replicator. By 2000, the authors believed a device would be able to rearrange individual atoms using lasers, to recreate any product or substance. It sounds fabulous — I could do with one right now to recreate me a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea. But sadly the technology remains some way off.

Without my replicator or jetpack, I guess I’ll just have to walk to the cafe.

Posted by laura on

The Big Bridge

I’d like to stake a claim for the A75 in France as the greatest road in Europe. Admittedly the first time I drove down it I had been on the road for nearly 24 hours and was possibly slightly delirious. But I did then travel back up it at a more leisurely pace and was similarly impressed. The southbound journey will forever be burned in my memory though.

The conditions were perfect — bright, clear sky and high sun in the early afternoon. And there was almost no traffic. I went nearly 100k without seeing another car at one point. The road winds its way through the foothills of the Pyrenees, up and down valleys. Until it gets to one valley in particular, where the road builders decided just to go point to point, rather than up and down. Here is the Viaduc de Millau, the single most amazing bridge ever built. I am a big fan of Brunel and all his work, but this is something else.

Fans of Top Gear will be familiar with the Viaduc de Millau. It was used by the team as the location for a side-by-side comparison of supercars in the last season. But however fantastic the camera work of the Top Gear team, to drive over it is something else.

About 20k before I reached the bridge I began to realise that I might be heading in its direction. My total absence of any sense of direction, and my resulting total reliance on SatNav meant I really had no idea that it was on my itinerary. Coming over the crest of a hill and seeing confirmation that I was to cross it was a very pleasant surprise.

The relevance to the future of all this? Ambition. There was no need for the builders of the Viaduc to recruit Richard Rogers to create a piece of artwork, rather than throwing up a functional concrete span. But they did, and in doing so created something that enhances an already beautiful valley and has become a tourist attraction in its own right. This is the future of responsible construction.

Posted by admin on

The Answer to Our Green Transport Needs

I covered 360 miles in a round trip on Friday and Saturday. In spite of all my environmental guilt, I drove. Why? Simple economics.

The choice was pretty stark. Taking the train would have meant leaving at 22:55 on the Thursday night and travelling for over nine hours with four changes. The return leg would have taken four hours. Total fare: £98, not including any taxis I would have needed at the other end (at least one at over £20).

Driving meant leaving at 05:30 and driving for three hours to get to my destination. The return meant leaving at 11:00 and driving for three hours to get back again. Total cost: around £25–30 in diesel.

So the train was four times as expensive, took more than twice as long, and was less than half as convenient. Yet fares continue to rise.

I think it is fairly obvious how this ties in to the future. Climate change remains the elephant in the room that most of us continue to ignore. But it is not out of bloody mindedness or lack of desire to change things. It simply isn’t realistic to take many of the decisions that we would like to.

I would greatly prefer to travel on the train, reading a good book or getting some work done, rather than spending six hours dodging the incompetents who inhabit the middle lane of Britain’s motorways.

But I cannot afford to spend an extra £90 or seven hours on travelling, and I am in the majority.

So what needs to change? Much as I like the idea of a dramatically improved rail network, clean, quick and subsidised for all, it ain’t gonna happen. There just isn’t a sufficiently large financial incentive for the private sector to drive such development, and the current government is not brave enough to renationalise the infrastructure and pour in the required investment. The next government will be ideologically opposed to such a move, whatever Cameron’s green credentials.

Instead I think we will see a renaissance for the pariah of the environmental lobby, much as we have for nuclear power. The answer to all our clean, green transport needs? The car.

Society is now too dependent on a means of getting themselves and their goods from A to B that gets them from door to door. The road network is the only really complete transport solution. But if it isn’t going to choke us all, or cause us all to have heart failure from road rage, a few things need to change.

1. Fuel
There are fuel options out there that are not perfect but a lot better than what we have today. I don’t believe electricity is the answer for the mainstream. Until there are serious developments in battery technology, the power to weight ratios are no good, the recharging too time consuming and inconvenient, and the source of electricity uncertain. Instead, liquid fuels such as biodiesel from recycled cooking oil and crops, plus ethanol from corn seem a strong option. They can be delivered through the existing refuelling network and they have a business and taxation model that everyone understands. They will also demand minimum changes to the performance we expect from our cars. Though neither is without issues, the benefits vastly outweigh the problems.

Unfortunately the money being spent by the oil companies on lobbying and PR to dismiss these options is vast. Even I was convinced that there simply weren’t enough acres of land to grow the fuel we need until I read otherwise (thankyou Wired).

2. Design
Cars have advanced a million ways and none. They are still fundamentally the same beast they ever were — a lump of steel with four wheels and an engine. The next phase of design doesn’t have to be revolutionary but there does need to be a significant evolution to improve efficiency further. Lighter metals, composites and ceramics are currently too expensive to make it into the multi-million-selling family hatchbacks but they will over time. Recyclability is obviously key, but safety too needs to improve, in part to compensate for the generally low level of ability displayed by drivers….

3. Training
But technology alone cannot compensate for this. While I am not a fan of the ‘nanny-state’ (where it exists in any sense other than some Daily Mail myth), I do believe that we have to improve the regulation of drivers. Looked at objectively it seems incredible that we are willing to put the incredible power of a modern car in to the hands of people with so little training. If driving were a niche sport, or perhaps was conducted only by the employees of a small industry, it would be regulated much more heavily. Licences would be renewed every five years; health and safety measures would be much more rigorous.

Don’t get me wrong: I have no desire to retake my test every five years. But poor driving has much more wide-ranging effects than accidents, injuries and deaths. For example, congestion (and stress levels) could be dramatically reduced by better educating people and enforcing standards for motorway driving.

4. Culture
It’s an old hobby horse but I have to take it for a ride once more: 4x4s. We need to do something to prevent people from unnecessarily owning and driving vehicles that are dangerous to them, those around them and the environment. For the majority of owners, 4x4s are a statement of fashion and ego. Any argument from a parent about it being for safely transporting their kids — an argument you hear too often, even from people you previously thought sensible — makes my blood boil. Completely ignoring the actual facts about the safety (or otherwise) of 4x4s is one thing. Ignoring the damage it could do to someone else’s kids and the future of the race as a whole is unforgiveable. The answer? An additional driving test for 4x4s that requires the owner to demonstrate the ability to drive it off road, an appreciation of maneuvering and parking such a large vehicle, and a knowledge of fuel economy and the effect that burning fossil fuels has on the environment.

Again I don’t wish to be misunderstood. I’m not anti-materialism. I like to buy nice things and all things considered, I’m probably a bit of a show off. In fact I plan to own a 4×4 at some point. But it will be for a purpose that requires that type of vehicle. Not for the school run.

If we can address these issues, I don’t have a problem with the car remaining our primary mode of transport. What will not solve the problem though is the recently proposed road charging scheme. I agree with the basic principle of charging for use. But penalising people for travelling on busy roads at rush hour is absurd, when the public transport alternative is so clearly inadequate.

Posted by admin on

Thirty Miles Per Hour

Early in the 19th century, some people genuinely believed that if a human travelled over thirty miles per hour their head would fall off. Cartoonists depicted what they expected to happen when the first trains cracked this mythical speed. No doubt newspapers jumped on the bandwagon and spread the fear with ludicrous headlines. Daily Mail readers probably shook their heads and wondered what the world was coming to.

We geeks and technologists tend to look back on these times and laugh. But the situation still occurs today. And what is worse, sometimes I think I am one of those people worrying that my head is going to fall off.

Take mobile phone radiation for example. There’s no conclusive data to tell me that mobile phone radiation is or isn’t dangerous. I carry on using my mobile phone safe in the lack of knowledge of whether it will or won’t kill me. But I still get the jitters occasionally when I feel it warming against my face. And I never put it in my front pockets…

GM foods are more of a concern. The scientist in me wants to love the idea of bug-resistant crops with high yields that will feed the third world. The fact that most of these crops are neutered to maintain the farmer’s dependence on the supplier is another issue: the technology appeals and seems to have a humanitarian benefit.

But it all seems a bit turky twizzlers to me. I love food, possibly more than gadgets, and as I have got (slightly) older and (slightly) wealthier I find myself increasingly turning to organic food. It might not look as pristine but feels right, and in most cases, tastes better. By contrast GM conjures in my mind the supermarket tomato, plump and even coloured but without an ounce of flavour.

Where things get really complicated in my mind is looking at the future. I recently heard an acronym that had bypassed me until now: BANG or Bits Atoms Neurons Genes. This is about the ultimate in convergence, bringing together our bodies and minds with the best the silicon world has to offer. The idea is to improve our lives but I’m not sure I like the idea of interfering with my body in such a way. I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) even have a piercing or a tattoo.

On paper the idea is fantastic: a wetware interface to the world wide web, giving you access to all the knowledge the world has to offer at hundreds of gigabits per second. Complete control of the always on environment around you with just a thought. But still…

Part of me enjoys the limitations of the human body. Some of the most interesting art and literature has been created based on the restrictions that the artist suffered. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ they say, but necessity arises from the hurdles we have to leap.

But maybe my mind will change over time. The first time I see someone enjoying their enhanced life it might be like seeing the first passengers whipping along at a bracing thirty miles an hour. And I might just decide that I want a ride too.

Tom Cheesewright