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Strategic Insights in Accelerating Technological Change

11 September, 2004

AC2004 Brochures are Done!

Check out our spiffy new PDF brochure. We've mailed the print version to the 280 attendees at Accelerating Change 2003, along with a free surprise. Send us a mailing address (mail(at) if you or a colleague would like a physical brochure.

AC2004 brings you forty world-class speakers over two and a half days, six keynotes, three debates, a Virtual Worlds demo, and a DVD conference record. Rates are $350 for Early Bird, and $150 for Student registrants (40 student spaces). We have 350 spaces at the event (300 for registrants, 50 for speakers and volunteers) and they are closing fast. Register soon if you think you can join us this year.



Speaker Spotlight: Helen Greiner

Ms. Greiner will be one of our two keynote speakers for the Physical Space theme at Accelerating Change 2004.

Bio: Helen Greiner is Co-Founder and Chairman of iRobot Corporation, a company delivering robots to the industrial, consumer, academic, and military markets. She was named an Ernst and Young New England Entrepreneur of the Year for 2003 (with iRobot co-founder Colin Angle). She has also been honored as a Technology Review "Innovator for the Next Century," invited to the World Economic Forums as a Global Leader of Tomorrow, and has received the prestigious DEMO God Award at the 2001 DEMO Conference. Her 15 years of experience in robotic technology includes work at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. She holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and an M.S. in Computer Science, both from MIT.

AC2004 Presentation Title: Mobile Robots - Saving Time, Money, and Lives.

Abstract: Mobile robots are an emerging technology field, and iRobot Corporation of Burlington MA is leading the way. iRobot's products are not far-flung, far-off science fiction, but robots for the real world. They are practical, reliable, innovative products that effectively answer users needs with creative engineering and design.

On the consumer side, iRobot is credited for inventing the first successful home robot, originally priced at $199.99. The disc-shaped Roomba finds dirt and cleans it up on all kinds of household surfaces all without human intervention. iRobot's Roomba© Robotic Floorvac is already cleaning floors in more than a half-million homes. iRobot also provides the PackBot™, a unmanned ground robot that was used by the United States Government inspecting caves in Afghanistan, and clearing buildings in Iraq. Currently, this tough, mobile, easy to use robot is being used on hundreds of missions a day in Iraq, clearing terrorist-set bombs.

Ms Greiner's talk will describe this new class of technology, how technology accelerations have affected the field, and how mobile robots will themselves catalyze accelerating change.

ASF Commentary: Have you wondered what consumer, industrial, and military bots are on the horizon? What about those rumors of a window cleaning microbot that can sit on car and house windows, moving to the corner when its done? How about laundry folding robots? Plant watering bots? Kitchenbots? Massage beds? Waking up to a massage from our BioBeds in 2015 would be a more humanizing world than alarm clocks. Want to give your kid something fun to do over the summer? Here's a $1,500 humanoid robot kit from Korea (scroll down to see the video) that is great fun. iRobot is a U.S. company that is leading the charge in creating compelling tools that "save time, money, and lives."

Three Years of Relative Safety and Improving World Conditions: May it Continue

[Commentary by John Smart]. We've had three years without a major terrorist incident in the U.S., and the doomsayers are losing steam. There have been aborted plans, but our security climate today is vastly better than it was during our last great domestic terrorism spike, just three decades ago during the Vietnam War era. According to the U.S. DoT, the total number of aircraft hijackings from 1968 through 1972 was 364. Eight airliners were hijacked to Cuba in January 1969 alone. Universal screening of U.S. airline passengers started in 1974. Will it be another thirty years before we see a spike similar to 9/11/2001? If we work hard, perhaps we'll be able to leave that legacy for the next generation.

Meanwhile, as technological change accelerates, we are finally seeing substantial improvements in world political and economic conditions, even in the third world. The U.N.'s 2003 Human Development Report, which charts progress toward such noble goals as halving world poverty, halting HIV/AIDS spread, and enrolling all children worldwide in primary school by 2015, notes that dramatic progress is being made in many nations, though some continue to stagnate. Let's hope that we can even out the extremes, and provide technology's "measurable exponential value" to everyone on the planet, at the same time improving their political, economic, and social conditions to the extent that their culture allows.

As prep for AC2004, Tech Tidbits features at least three thought-provoking items in each issue, arranged in our three conference themes. Find news we should know about? Tell us at mail(at)

Good Surveillance: Shot-Spotter, Rafe Needleman, AlwaysOn, 6 September 2004 (2 pages)
[Commentary by John Smart]. Accelerating Times readers may recall our discussion of this promising technology during the Washington Sniper crisis last year. Shot microphone arrays have digital signal processing chips that can identify gunshots, and triangulate them within a few hundred feet. With repeated shots, they can resolve within inches. They can be used with multi-angle video cameras and telephoto lenses to provide detailed visual images in public spaces. In any community that is willing to move into untested civil liberties territory, this video can easily be posted to nightly television so that local citizens can help ID unknown shooters.

Police departments in a few metro areas (like Rampart district in Los Angeles) have deployed shot microphone arrays on telephone poles in gang-heavy neighborhoods, and have a policy to show up soon after gunshots and knock on doors, asking if anyone saw the shooter.

This policy fits well with the Broken Windows theory (registration required) of political scientist James Wilson and criminologist George Kelling (The Atlantic Monthly, March 1982), the idea that rapid response to and repair of the visibly "broken" aspects of a local community causes everyone to feel in control, to value community building, to take their own initiative and be more vigilant of crime. In a participatory climate, billboards with easy reporting phone numbers and the list of the top ten acts people should report should also help reduce the incidence of crime.

Shot-Spotter (see the FAQ) is attempting to move from fixed microphone arrays in law enforcement settings to mobile arrays that can be deployed in military settings, using mesh network communications, so that if any local arrays are destroyed the system still works, with graceful degradation. The first economical use of well-performing mesh network shot microphones plus video cameras in battle zones will turn gridified areas into inherently defensive rather than offensive zones.

This fits well with trends in networked weapons. In 2001 I forecast that that within thirty years, leading first world countries will no longer allow the sale of guns that don't have either a communications network or a "black box recorder" built into them, GPS localizers and audio and video streams that begin as soon as the safety is taken off the weapon. I would also expect integrated 911 cellphone dialers and detachable earpieces in some of the more popular models. As with the microphone arrays, such networks turn what was originally an offensive weapon into an inherently defensive asset.

Those using networked weapons for defense have proof that they operated within the law, and those using them for offense, or using nonnetworked weapons, are that much more rapidly identified by our increasingly transparent society. I hope ShotSpotter and Centurist Systems succeed in expanding their market for this valuable technology. They might consider selling their cutting edge equipment in Ireland, South Africa, and other global markets that are leading the way in creating safe city centers through rapid police response to sensor-detected crime. Thanks to Mark Finnern for the hit.

BMW: Virtual Reality Apps and the Futurelife House, September 2004
[Commentary by Iveta Brigis] Ninety percent of the innovations launched in the automobile industry are now based on software and electronics developments. BMW uses virtual reality across an excitingly broad spectrum that includes designing and testing their vehicles, engines, and facilities; training their engineers, designers, technicians, and salespeople; selling their products; and simulating traffic to develop new traffic and vehicle technologies.

Geek stuff: Two years ago, the BMW Virtual Center included a 175-square foot wall display, three-sided room display, datavisor 80 head-mounted display, Electrohome 9500 stereo-capable CRT projectors and Christie DLP projectors, ARTrack optical tracking system with Flystick, SGI Onyx graphics system with Infinite Reality2 graphics pipes, Silicon Graphics Octane2 and Silicon Graphics Fuel workstations. Today, BMW’s virtual and haptics technology is so advanced that even the surfaces of metal, plastic, and leather on their virtual cars, MINIs, motorcycles, and Rolls Royces all feel authentic to the touch, and they even reflect light. One example: researchers can immediately notice in the windshield the reflection of a piece of white paper resting on the dashboard - a potential source of distraction to the driver.

One of the most innovative (not to mention cool!) projects BMW sponsors today, run by a forward-thinking nonprofit, is Futurelife House, where a Swiss family lives in a futuristic home that is networked with their 5 Series BMWs. Think of opening the door to let in friends while you’re not at home, or turning the lights, heat, and oven on or off all from the comfort of your car.

Some of VR's potential benefits: quicker design, testing, training, and production time; more intricate design capabilities; increased communication and ease of collaboration between departments; potentially better products and services; lots of time and money saved.

Does anyone in our community have “unusual innovations for the mobile future?” Check out BMW’s Virtual Innovation Agency. They solicit small and medium sized companies to help them shape the future.

Winning the War on Spam (and the Email Stamp Tax Proposal), Steven Johnson, Discover, June 2004 (2 pages)
[Commentary by John Smart] The deep thinking Steven Johnson, founder and editor of FEED and author of Interface Culture, 1997, Emergence, 2001, and Mind Wide Open, 2004, weighs in on the evolving, epic story of spam control in cyberspace. He relays what seems to me like a really great idea: an email "stamp tax" of around a penny per email sent, intended to reflect the "true-cost" of using public cyberspace, and with the proceeds used to improve the digital commons.

Today our cyber commons is a digital dumping ground, with little accountability and 60 percent of internet traffic being spam, by some estimates. There is historical precedent for oversight: for a long time roads were also free until governments needed road improvement committees. The telegraph and telephone likely also started this way as well.

The contentious issue of internet taxes has been debated several times by U.S. politicos since 1999. This isn't just a bureaucrat's dream: a number of business folk, like David Pottruck, president of Charles Schwab, have come out in favor of a use tax. The issue clearly is complex, and there needs to be a compelling case that better oversight is needed before we should intervene in this accelerating engine of change. Spam and the lack of secure digital identity may be that compelling case, if these problems persist, as many expect they will. Today's first generation firewalls and software immune systems get better every year, but they may not be enough, by themselves, to take care of the problem.

Charging us a penny per email sent would be "coffee money" for the average user, but an unsupportable investment for somone emailing millions of Nigeria investment scams per day. Paying this modest email postage may continue to be affordable for the Viagra spammers, but at least then we'd know that they are paying their fair share for wiring up the next generation internet that will keep them permanently out of our sight. I love the Cato Institute, limited government policy, and free market thinking, but we must also acknowledge that spam is the "tragedy of the digital commons." Right now, these spammers are all just free riders, majorly impacting our servers, polluting our inboxes, and stealing our precious time. Major reduction of spam would be a clear public good, in my opinion.

Johnson also notes Cynthia Dwork's proposal to hobble the compute cycles of all email sent through mail servers. Clever as it is, this seems to fly in the face of STEM-compression (doing more, faster, with less resources) trends: it would create a real loss of efficiency in any society that attempted such a communications-delaying scheme would suffer. We need a spam-free internet, but we also need lightspeed communications. No society could retreat from that benefit without losing competitive advantage. A spam-free digital commmons, set up as a government-sanctioned testbed in certain protected ISPs first, would greatly improve communications efficiency in any society that developed it. Better regulation is going to be needed, it's just a matter of by who, how much, and when. Discover notes that the first spam was sent in 1994, so we've all lived with this problem for a decade. Let's hope we see some intelligent proposals soon.

Call for Submissions
ASF is seeking submissions for our Accelerating Times (AT) web-based publication. AT is a "free and priceless" newsletter with broad coverage and brief editorials on scientific, technological, business, and humanist dialogs in accelerating change. Anyone may submit via email to mail(at) Submissions may be reader feedback, scan hits, article links, original papers, questions, digital art, and cartoons (for you illustrators out there). Contributers will be notified of their acceptance status in a timely fashion, and accepted work will appear, fully credited, in future issues of Accelerating Times. Visit for archive issues.


AC2004 Brochures are Done!

Speaker Spotlight: Helen Greiner

Three Years of Relative Safety: May it Continue


Good Surveillance: Shot-Spotter

BMW: Virtual Reality Apps and the Futurelife House

Winning the War on Spam (and the Email Stamp Tax Proposal)



World Technology Summit and Awards, October 7-8 (San Francisco, CA). Celebrating the most innovative people and organizations in the science and technology world.

Pop!Tech, October 21-23 (Camden, ME). The social impact of technology and the shape of things to come.


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