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By: Nick Bilton
Via: The New York Times
SAN FRANCISCO — By now, seeing one of Google’s experimental, driverless cars zipping down Silicon Valley’s Highway 101, or parking itself on a San Francisco street, is not all that unusual. Indeed, as automakers like Audi, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz make plans for self-driving vehicles, it is only a matter of time before such cars become a big part of the great American traffic jam.
While driverless cars might still seem like science fiction outside the Valley, the people working and thinking about these technologies are starting to ask what these autos could mean for the city of the future. The short answer is “a lot.”
Imagine a city where you don’t drive in loops looking for a parking spot because your car drops you off and scoots off to some location to wait, sort of like taxi holding pens at airports. Or maybe it is picked up by a robotic minder and carted off with other vehicles, like a row of shopping carts.
Inner-city parking lots could become parks. Traffic lights could be less common because hidden sensors in cars and streets coordinate traffic. And, yes, parking tickets could become a rarity since cars would be smart enough to know where they are not supposed to be.
As scientists and car companies forge ahead — many expect self-driving cars to become commonplace in the next decade — researchers, city planners and engineers are contemplating how city spaces could change if our cars start doing the driving for us. There are risks, of course: People might be more open to a longer daily commute, leading to even more urban sprawl.
That city of the future could have narrower streets because parking spots would no longer be necessary. And the air would be cleaner because people would drive less. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 30 percent of driving in business districts is spent in a hunt for a parking spot, and the agency estimates that almost one billion miles of driving is wasted that way every year.
“What automation is going to allow is repurposing, both of spaces in cities, and of the car itself,” said Ryan Calo, an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law, who specializes in robotics and drones.
Harvard University researchers note that as much as one-third of the land in some cities is devoted to parking spots. Some city planners expect that the cost of homes will fall as more space will become available in cities. If parking on city streets is reduced and other vehicles on roadways become smaller, homes and offices will take up that space. Today’s big-box stores and shopping malls require immense areas for parking, but without those needs, they could move further into cities.
The Autonomous Intersection Management project, created by the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, imagines cities where traffic lights no longer exist but sensors direct the flow of traffic. Although a video showing off the automated traffic intersection looks like total chaos, the researchers insist that such intersections will reduce congestion and fuel costs and can allow cars to drive through cities without stopping.
Of course, getting to a utopian city will take a little longer than circling the block looking for a spot. A spokesman for Audi said a fully automated car would not be available until the end of the decade. And the regulatory issues to be addressed before much of this could come true are, to put it mildly, forbidding.
But the pieces are starting to fall into place, at least enough to excite future-minded thinkers. Last year, Jerry Brown, the governor of California, signed legislation paving the way for driverless cars in California, making it the third state to explicitly allow the cars on the road. And federal agencies are starting to consider their impact. In May the Transportation Department made its first formal policy statement on autonomous vehicles, encouraging cities to allow testing of driverless cars.
But to some, this promise — or overpromise as the case may be — sounds familiar.
“The future city is not going to be a congestion-free environment. That same prediction was made that cars would free cities from the congestion of horses on the street,” said Bryant Walker Smith, a fellow at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School and a member of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford. “You have to build the sewer system to accommodate the breaks during the Super Bowl; it won’t be as pretty as we’re envisioning.”
Mr. Smith has an alternative vision of the impact of automated cars, which he believes are inevitable. Never mind that nice city center. He says that driverless cars will allow people to live farther from their offices and that the car could become an extension of home.
“I could sleep in my driverless car, or have an exercise bike in the back of the car to work out on the way to work,” he said. “My time spent in my car will essentially be very different.”
“Driverless cars won’t appear in a vacuum,” Mr. Smith said. Other predictions for the future city imagine fewer traditional-looking cars. Taking their place will be drones and robots that deliver goods.
Oh, and that food-delivery car double-parked outside? That, Mr. Calo said, will be replaced by a delivery drone.
By: Katharine Gammon
This flu season has been a particularly bad one. But an innovative method for making vaccines promises an easier and quicker response to pandemics—thanks to good ol’ tobacco. Sounds healthy, right? Currently, the majority of the 130 million seasonal flu vaccine doses administered in the US every year are made using live chicken embryos. But the process is costly, time-consuming, and requires a lot of eggs.
So Medicago, a Canadian pharmaceutical company, is testing a new idea: Coax tobacco plants into expressing the proteins to make vaccines. Last year Darpa challenged the firm to make 10 million doses in a month. Medicago succeeded, proving it can respond quickly to a new outbreak—much faster than the six months required for egg-based vaccines. This is how the tobacky gets wacky.
By: Marcus Wohlsen
PayPal co-founder Max Levchin faced some flak recently when he announced he was starting a new company in the already crowded field of digital payments. Levchin is one of several Silicon Valley luminaries who have talked big about the tech industry’s timidity. So starting yet another payments company seemed decidedly unambitious.
Yet plenty of companies out there are still taking a run at the next moonshot. Their technologies don’t let you share photos or offer you a deal on your next manicure. Instead, these companies could change the world in deep ways by solving tough problems, rather than the kind of “problems” too many startups make up as justifcations for the “solutions” they’re trying to sell. Not that photo-sharing isn’t great (Levchin did that, too). Unlike what the companies that follow are trying to do, however, it’s not exactly shooting for the moon.
Above: Emotiv Lifescience
You don’t get much closer to a moonshot than “let’s build a machine that reads people’s minds.” Even if Emotiv Lifescience’s brainwave scanner was just for use as a videogame controller, the company’s aspirations would still be ambitious. But when you start talking about a brain-controlled wheelchair, you’re entering the territory of technology that matters.
While still a grad student, Immumetrix scientist Christina Fan developed a way to diagnose Down syndrome in a fetus through a simple test of the mother’s blood, rather than the far riskier, unpleasant use of amniocentesis. She and her colleagues are working to perfect the technique, as well as developing ways to use high-speed DNA sequencing to analyze individuals’ immune systems for the eventual development of custom treatments.
Fan says: “In the far future, knowledge about the immune repertoire could even inform genetic engineering to give a person super-immunity or to reverse immune disorders.”
Wind and solar power are great, except when it’s not sunny or windy. But wunderkind Danielle Fong, who graduated from college at 17, has developed a new way to store green energy that claims new benchmarks for efficiency. Her system uses compressed air and a fine mist of water to pump electricity back into the grid during times of peak demand. LightSail backers Peter Thiel, Vinod Khosla and Bill Gates have poured more than $37 million so far into the Berkeley-based company.
Photo: Sam Howzit/Flickr
Unlike most companies on this list, Huawei is anything but a scrappy startup. The one-time importer of Hong Kong telephone equipment has grown into a telecom giant and one of the world’s leading smartphone makers. Though not widely known in the U.S. (yet), Huawei has succeeded not because of its phones’ features but the lack of them.
Huawei’s low-priced Android handsets are a key reason smartphones have become less of a luxury and more of a commodity in China and other parts of the world. According to one recent estimate, about one-seventh of the world’s population uses smartphones. Imagine what happens when the other six billion do.
Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired
In much of the developing world, credit and debit cards have never caught on, since the telecom networks needed to support their use doesn’t exist. In those same places, however, mobile phone use has exploded. In a phenomenon known as “leapfrogging,” the wires needed to power traditional card-based transactions might never get installed, since everyone will just use their phones instead.
In Kenya, mobile operator Safaricom has developed M-PESA, a way to transfer money and make microloans using text messages — no bank account required. Unlike in, say, the U.S., mobile payments have taken off in Kenya thanks to M-PESA, with millions of users. The company is working on rolling out the service to other countries where a lack of financial and technological infrastructure could cease to be a barrier to joining the 21st-century economy.
Photo: Sipa via AP Images
Saving energy is good. Saving energy without having to think about it is better. The buildings we inhabit are among the greatest sources of greenhouse gases. Nest’s smart thermostats seek to shrink this carbon footprint by learning our habits to automate indoor climate control.
The design software juggernaut Autodesk recently partnered with Organovo to make human organs designed by computer and printed by machines a future reality. Already, Organovo’s 3-D bioprinters are being used by medical researchers to print tissues for experimentation. Organovo co-founder Andras Forgacs went on to start Modern Meadow, a company developing printable meat and leather.
Photo: Dave Bullock / Wired
Few startups have had as much success in the war on cancer as Plexxikon. The company has shown dramatic results with a compound that targets a mutation found in many advanced-stage melanoma tumors (above, seen under a microscope). The next time you try to talk yourself down from work stress by saying “It’s not like we’re curing cancer,” remember: These guys actually are.
Photo: Pulmonary Pathology/Flickr
In much of the world, mosquitoes remain one of the most virulent vectors for infectious diseases. Oxitec’s genetically altered bugs fight Dengue fever by passing down a lethal gene to their offspring that kills them before they can reach adulthood. Curbing an entire species has raised concerns about unintended ecological consequences. But the use of genetic engineering as a public health tool is only likely to grow if Oxitec’s modified mosquitoes help eradicate this deadly disease.
Forget about the moonshot. How about a Mars shot? Of all the members of the PayPal mafia, which includes Levchin and Thiel, Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk has done the most to chase innovation on a truly grand scale. Musk not only wants to put humans on Mars; he wants 80,000 of us to live in a Martian colony. And SpaceX is his launching pad.
In the meantime, the company is busy making privatized space travel a reality. Most recently, SpaceX showcased a rocket that takes off and lands vertically—just like the ships in every sci-fi movie ever. Another SpaceX craft just docked with the International Space Station.
Photo: Space X
By: Ben Johnson
Defense contractor Lockheed Martin has discovered a way to make desalination 100 times more efficient. And that could have a big impact on bringing clean drinking water to the developing world.
The process is called reverse osmosis, and the material used is graphene — a lot like the stuff you smudge across paper with your pencil.
“This stuff is so thin and so strong, it’s a remarkable compound, it is one atom thick,” says Lockheed Martin senior engineer John Stetson. “If you have a piece of paper that represents the thickness of graphene, the closest similar membrane is about the height of a room.”
The new material essentially acts as a sieve, allowing water to pass though while salts remain behind. Graphene could make for smaller, cheaper plants that turn salt water into drinking water, but it could also have uses in war zones as a portable water desalinator.
“Lockheed really is concerned with the broadest aspects of global security [and] maintaining safe environments and that includes water,” says Stetson.
To hear about more graphene applications, click on the audio player above.
By: Nathan Yau
Via: Flowing Data
In a collaboration between PEER 1 Hosting, Steamclock Software, and Jeff Johnston, the Map of the Internet app provides a picture of what the physical Internet looks like.
“Users can view Internet service providers (ISPs), Internet exchange points, universities and other organizations through two view options — Globe and Network. The app also allows users to generate a trace route between where they are located to a destination node, search for where popular companies and domains are, as well as identify their current location on the map.”
I can’t say how accurate it is or if the described mechanisms are accurate, but it sure is fun to play with. The view above and a globe are placed a three-dimensional space, and you can zoom and rotate as you please. There’s also a time slider, so you can see changes to the Internet over the years.
Get it for free on iTunes.
A CNNMoney segment of the app in action:
By: James B. Stewart
Via: The New York Times
After Yahoo’s chief executive, Marissa Mayer, ordered employees working from home to show up at the office for work, there was speculation that she was emulating Google, her previous employer.
Yahoo employees should be so lucky.
Whatever else might be said about Yahoo’s workplace, it’s a long way from Google’s, as I discovered this week when I dropped in at Google’s East Coast headquarters, a vast former Port Authority shipping complex that occupies a full city block in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. Yahoo set off a nationwide debate about workplace flexibility, productivity and creativity last month after a memo with the directive surfaced on the Internet. “We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together,” read the memo from Jackie Reses, Yahoo’s director of human resources, which went viral after Kara Swisher posted it on AllThingsD.
The discussion may have been all the more heated since the ban was imposed by one of the relatively few female chief executives, one who had a nursery built near the executive suite after she gave birth last year.
Google’s various offices and campuses around the globe reflect the company’s overarching philosophy, which is nothing less than “to create the happiest, most productive workplace in the world,” according to a Google spokesman, Jordan Newman. But do its unorthodox workplaces and lavish perks yield the kind of creativity it prides itself on, and Yahoo obviously hopes to foster?
Mr. Newman, 27, who joined Google straight from Yale, and Brian Welle, a “people analytics” manager who has a Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology from New York University, led me on a brisk and, at times, dizzying excursion through a labyrinth of play areas; cafes, coffee bars and open kitchens; sunny outdoor terraces with chaises; gourmet cafeterias that serve free breakfast, lunch and dinner; Broadway-theme conference rooms with velvet drapes; and conversation areas designed to look like vintage subway cars.
The library looks as if Miss Scarlet (from the board game Clue) has just stepped out, leaving her incriminating noose (in the form of a necktie) prominently draped on the back of an oversize wing chair. A bookcase swings open to reveal a secret room and even more private reading area. Next to the recently expanded Lego play station, employees can scurry up a ladder that connects the fourth and fifth floors, where a fiendishly challenging scavenger hunt was in progress. Dogs strolled the corridors alongside their masters, and a cocker spaniel was napping, leashed to a pet rail, outside one of the dining areas.
Google lets many of its hundreds of software engineers, the core of its intellectual capital, design their own desks or work stations out of what resemble oversize Tinker Toys. Some have standing desks, a few even have attached treadmills so they can walk while working. Employees express themselves by scribbling on walls. The result looks a little chaotic, like some kind of high-tech refugee camp, but Google says that’s how the engineers like it.
“We’re trying to push the boundaries of the workplace,” Mr. Newman said, in what seemed an understatement.
In keeping with a company built on information, this seeming spontaneity is anything but. Everything has been researched and is backed by data. In one of the open kitchen areas, Dr. Welle pointed to an array of free food, snacks, candy and beverages. “The healthy choices are front-loaded,” he said. “We’re not trying to be mom and dad. Coercion doesn’t work. The choices are there. But we care about our employees’ health, and our research shows that if people cognitively engage with food, they make better choices.”
So the candy (M&Ms, plain and peanut; TCHO brand luxury chocolate bars, chewing gum, Life Savers) is in opaque ceramic jars that sport prominent nutritional labels. Healthier snacks (almonds, peanuts, dried kiwi and dried banana chips) are in transparent glass jars. In coolers, sodas are concealed behind translucent glass. A variety of waters and juices are immediately visible. “Our research shows that people consume 40 percent more water if that’s the first thing they see,” Dr. Welle said. (Note to Mayor Bloomberg: Perhaps New York City should hide supersize sodas rather than ban them.)
Craig Nevill-Manning, a New Zealand native and Google’s engineering director in Manhattan, was the impetus behind the company’s decision to hire a cadre of engineers in New York, and he led an exodus to Chelsea from what was a small outpost near Times Square. “I lobbied for this building,” he told me. “I love the neighborhood. You can live across the street. There are bars and restaurants.”
He showed me a map of the city with dots indicating where each Google employee lives. They’re heavily concentrated in Manhattan below 34th Street, Brooklyn and the Upper West Side, most within walking distance of Chelsea or a short subway ride away. “We inherited the informal work environment — the casual dress, the flexible hours — from Silicon Valley, but we adapted it to the East Coast urban environment,” he said. After the dot-com collapse in 2000, Manhattan was largely written off as a technology center. Since Google’s move, Chelsea is mentioned in the same breath as Silicon Valley. Google has turned over 22,000 square feet of its space, rent-free, to Cornell until its new technology campus can be built on Roosevelt Island.
“The philosophy is very simple,” Mr. Nevill-Manning said. “Google’s success depends on innovation and collaboration. Everything we did was geared toward making it easy to talk. Being on one floor here removed psychological barriers to interacting, and we’ve tried to preserve that.” Among innovations that sprang from seemingly chance office encounters are the Google Art Project, which is putting thousands of museum works online, and enhancements to the company’s AdSense and AdWords advertising platforms. Razor scooters make it easy to get around the huge floors (each covers five acres), which offer every conceivable gathering space, from large open spaces to tiny nooks with whimsical furniture. It was Mr. Nevill-Manning’s idea to install the ladder connecting floors, now that Google is too large to fit on one. He said he wouldn’t go so far as to say cost is no object, but software engineers “are incredibly productive on a square foot basis,” he said. “Their value is enormous. It doesn’t cost that much to make them happy.”
Allison Mooney, 32, joined Google two years ago from the advertising giant Omnicom Group, and the difference is “night and day,” she said. “I came here from the New York agency model, where you work constantly, 24/7. You answer every e-mail, nights and weekends. Here, you don’t have to show you’re working, or act like you’re working. The culture here is to shut down on weekends. People have a life.”
And the perks, she added, are “amazing.” In the course of our brief conversation, she mentioned subsidized massages (with massage rooms on nearly every floor); free once-a-week eyebrow shaping; free yoga and Pilates classes; a course she took called “Unwind: the art and science of stress management”; a course in advanced negotiation taught by a Wharton professor; a health consultation and follow-up with a personal health counselor; an author series and an appearance by the novelist Toni Morrison; and a live interview of Justin Bieber by Jimmy Fallon in the Google office.
This in addition to a full array of more traditional employee benefits. Curiously, there’s some exercise equipment but no fitness center (Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. has multiple state-of-the-art fitness centers) because Manhattan employees said they preferred joining health clubs to exercising with colleagues. (Google subsidizes the gym memberships.) And there’s no open bar, although alcohol is served at T.G.I.F. parties (now held on Thursdays), one of which featured a dating game.
After my visit, I spoke to Teresa Amabile, a business administration professor at Harvard Business School and co-author of “The Progress Principle,” about creativity at work, and told her I had just been to Google. “Isn’t it fantastic?” she said. Some of her former students work there, and “they feel very, very fortunate to be there,” she said. As to the broader relationship between the workplace and creativity, “there’s some evidence that great physical space enhances creativity,” she said. “The theory is that open spaces that are fun, where people want to be, facilitate idea exchange. I’ve watched people interact at Google and you see a cross-fertilization of ideas.” That said, she added, “there isn’t a lot of research to support this. And none of this matters unless people feel they have meaningful work and are making progress at it. In over 30 years of research, I’ve found that people do their most creative work when they’re motivated by the work itself.”
Ben Waber, who has a Ph.D. from M.I.T. and is the author of “People Analytics,” is, at 29, the median age of Google employees. His company, Sociometric Solutions in Boston, uses data to assess workplace interactions. “Google has really been out front in this field,” he said. “They’ve looked at the data to see how people are collaborating. Physical space is the biggest lever to encourage collaboration. And the data are clear that the biggest driver of performance in complex industries like software is serendipitous interaction. For this to happen, you also need to shape a community. That means if you’re stressed, there’s someone to help, to take up the slack. If you’re surrounded by friends, you’re happier, you’re more loyal, you’re more productive. Google looks at this holistically. It’s the antithesis of the old factory model, where people were just cogs in a machine.”
Both experts were critical of Yahoo’s plan to force employees into the office. “If you’re spying on them, monitoring them or coercing them, it will create a poisonous atmosphere,” Dr. Waber said.
Professor Amabile added: “Google doesn’t have to force people. Marissa Mayers’s mistake may have been not being more clear about the need to be together and to experience creative excitement. Taking a hard line is likely to have negative effects.”
A Yahoo spokeswoman responded: “We don’t discuss internal matters. This isn’t a broad industry view on working from home. This is about what is right for Yahoo, right now.”
It should probably be obvious at this juncture, but Google doesn’t require employees to work from the office. It doesn’t even keep track of who’s there. The notion seems to have never occurred to anyone. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a policy on that,” Mr. Newman said, but “we do expect employees to figure out a work schedule with their team and manager. It’s not a free-for-all.”
For a company with Google’s largess — and the profit margins that make it possible — it’s hardly necessary to require employees to be at the office. “People want to come in,” Ms. Mooney said. On average, she estimates she spends nine hours a day there, five days a week. She mentioned that she recently took a day off — and ended up at the office.
“I live in a studio apartment,” she explained. “And I don’t have free food.”