The Third Industrial Revolution

Recently there has been a lot of talk about a third industrial revolution in the making. It is of course that involving 3D printing. Take a look at the other articles on the website for an overview.

The thing about these machines is that they can produce individual tailor made objects at low cost, something that was not really possible in the days of mass production, when multiples were cheap but individual one off projects very expensive.

It is a contentious technology though for several reason, the first being its versatility. A few months ago we had the first fully printed gun, the plans were put online for free before being removed but only after more than 100 000 people downloaded them.100 000 more unlicensed guns in the world possibly. Check out this article.

Another reason is that these machines will completely change manufacturing. The old days of heavy machinery in production lines might be numbered, and this means that the power and financial strength that the organizations that have control of these systems currently posess is about to be lost.

So where should somewhere like MIT here in Cambridge MA stand? They have to support new technology, it is their job, but in doing so they might be undermining their own foundations, rooted as they are in large scale US industry.

3D Printed Prosthetic Hand

3D Printed Prosthetic Hand

As well as the printable gun though there are obviously a million good uses for this technology. Two weeks ago I mentioned an engineering company that is testing an aeroplane engine that uses printed parts, and in case of dire need you can now print a prosthetic hand for about $150 through an open source website. Read the article here.

Last week the Bassetti Foundation sponsored a series of events in San Francisco based around these problems. One of the main speakers was Chris Anderson, ex editor of Wired magazine and author of the book Makers, he is a leader in thinking on these matters. There is plenty of information on the website for interested readers, including videos of the symposium about the political and social implications of a move towards 3D printed manufacture.

3D Printed Motorbike

3D Printed Motorbike

Check out the photos too, here is a printed motorbike. They can produce far more than you imagine.

Kill the Password

This week I would like to draw readers’ attention to an article that appeared in Wired at the end of last year. Written by Mat Honan and entitled Kill the Password: Why a String of Characters Can’t Protect Us Anymore, it makes for really interesting and alarming reading.

The author starts by explaining that he lost all of his digital life last year as his accounts were hacked, an event that lead him into investigating online security and how it is breached.

What he discovered is not for the faint hearted. The linking together of different accounts using an email as username means that any seriously interested party with a little time on their hands and very little money can relatively easily get into a single account, and from there into the others.

His conclusion is that the culture of using passwords for security is outdated, a thing of the past and that anyone who tells you otherwise is either deluded or trying to convince you of something that is not true.

The worst password choices

Worst passwords of 2012

The availability of information is a problem because of the personal question access to resetting your password. Mother’s maiden name, place born etc. are easy things to find out about anybody through ancestry sites or other documents. Once you have somebody’s email address, you try to reset the password using the personal questions through the provider’s website. The answers might be on Facebook, or on their blog, or maybe intuitive, but they are out there.

Then to the customer services rep that you speak to by phone. They are people and can be misled. The article contains a transcription of a conversation between a hacker and one of these people. As the user needs to be able to reset the password they are offered a series of questions that get easier and easier to guess. Names of best friends is possible using Facebook or other social network publications, but if not try favourite food or others, but the example given is name of one of the files in the account. Try Google, Amazon, Personal, one will be right.

So the problem is that the system needs to be flexible and easy enough to use, so we must be able to easily change our passwords, but this makes security impossible.

How can this problem be addressed? Here the trade off is privacy. If the company knows you, through your search histories, places you have been, where you work and what you like to do they might better be able to tell if the password reset-er is you, but you lose any privacy you think you might have.

Voice recognition can be tricked using recordings, biometrics and fingerprints too. Once a system uses these things that cannot be changed or reset the problem is magnified. If I have a fingerprint lifted from a screen I can use it to get anywhere and new fingers are hard to come by these days, so what do you use next?

The article poses these problems from the point of view of somebody who has been hacked, but the author also looks at who these hackers are and even meets a couple. It is big business in certain circles, particularly in the Russian speaking world where organized crime has a large stake and makes a lot of money through stealing identities and all that follows. In other circles they are just “kids” having some fun wreaking havoc.

There are a few simple strategies outlined in this (not short) article that are worth following but none are foolproof, and that is a lesson we could all learn from. Just a word of warning, it contains some harsh language.

On a lighter note happy new year to everyone, and my mum’s maiden name was Windsor (no relation to either Barbara or Elizabeth).

Asteroid Mining

Last week an American Venture called Planetary Resources, Inc unveiled a plan to send a fleet of spaceship into near space to review the possibility of mining on asteroids.

Apparently there are thousands of asteroids close enough to make them attractive as they hold treasures worth fortunes in the form of platinum and other metals of the same group.

An asteroid with 'Property of X' marked on it

This one is mine!

Precious metals are not the only riches available however, and strangely enough plans are afoot to look for water. Water is an important material in space flight, because it can be used to produce the hydrogen and oxygen needed to power rockets, so an asteroid could represent a kind of modern day re-fueling station. This could make space travel cheaper because once rockets had left the atmosphere they could be refueled in space, eliminating the need to carry the excess weight during lift off.

All of this is in the future of course, but the project has plenty of backing from among others Larry Page of Google and filmmaker James Cameron.

These unfolding events bring some tricky questions however regarding the exploitation rights of near space objects. At the moment there is actually a subsection of international law called Space Law, governed by the Outer Space Treaty that was signed in 1967.

The writers did not envisage such monumental strides in technological advancement however and although the treaty makes clear that States cannot take celestial bodies as their own, they do retain jurisdiction and control over the object if they are the first to land on it.

A precedent has already been set as articles collected in Space have already been sold to private bidders by the Russian government. An article in this week’s wired goes into much greater detail.

It all looks a bit far fetched at times but supporters claim that the idea is no stranger than deep sea drilling for oil. It reminds me somewhat of the great gold rush events in the US of covered wagons and horses, only this time the means of transport differ and the digging is done by machine. Or maybe they will bring back entire asteroids and break them up on Earth, we will just have to wait and see. This article offers a glimpse at some possibilities.

There are obviously plenty of technological improvements required before any of this becomes concrete, but also a lot of legal and ethical issues need to be addressed. As ever one thing is certain, there’s big money in it for someone if it can be done!

A Bad Memory Erasing Pill

The February issue of Wired magazine contained an article about an interesting medical breakthrough related to memory. Scientists working on the development of a pill that can erase bad memories have achieved success in laboratory rats.

memory erasing pill

Bad memories, a thing of the past?

It is a long and detailed article, but I will try to summarize it in a few sentences. Memories are stored in different parts of the brian, emotions in one part, visuals in another etc. In order to remember something a sort of chain must be formed that link the separate parts of the memory, a chain formed by protein. If you can block the protein you can block access to the memory.

Scientists have been experimenting for decades to try and find a compound that can do this, and recently seem to have found one that works on rats. The experiment is relatively simple, the rats are exposed to series that they learn to recognize, an example might be a series of musical notes followed by a painful electric shock. As soon as the rats hear the first note in the series they get scared and agitated. Administer the compound and the association is lost, you can play the series and the rats no longer remember the consequences until BANG, the shock arrives.

Cruel but bearing important consequences, if the links in the chain can be broken then the memory is not cancelled but the individual no longer has access to it.

As I said above different parts of the memory are stored in different places, so the hope is that different compounds will be able to delete different aspects of painful memories. One might close access to the memory of the scent of an ex girlfriend who left you for your best mate, or the pain experienced in an accident, or the vision of your dog jumping out of your third floor bedroom window while chasing a ball that you accidentally threw too hard for him to catch, or other such traumas.

Talk is of selected memory loss by pill, but of course this is far in the future if ever at all, but the very prospect raises some interesting ethical dilemmas. We are who we are by experience. I don’t play with knives; I have a scar with 7 stitches in my hand to remind me why, but even without it the memory of a Christmas Eve trip to Wythenshawe Hospital lingers on.

And having seen various governments conduct more than questionable research on their own populations (and others) and I am not just talking about despot regimes but the very birth states of democracy themselves as this apology given by President Obama demonstrates, I sincerely question the ethics behind such a development.

So the question is this, are we seeing a great medical and technological breakthrough, a leap in human advancement, or the creation of another dangerous tool once it gets into the wrong hands?