Driverless Cars To Hit UK Roads Next January

Cars of the future to be tested on public roads in the UK beginning January 2015.

Topics: Technology Our Future Skill Point: Yet  Already or Still

It seems like something out of the future: cars that can drive themselves with no help from human drivers. These machines are in testing or development stages by Google, Nissan, General Motors, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and other manufacturers in an effort to keep up with the rapidly advancing technologies. Even the Chinese search engine Baidu claims its researchers are in the early stages of development of a driverless car. The United Kingdom is opening up its roads to these driverless cars, and has invited cities to compete to host the first driverless cars on public roads.

You might be surprised to learn that three states in the U.S. already allow driverless cars on the roads, California, Nevada, and Florida. In fact, Google’s self-driving cars have already covered over 300,000 miles. They may even be the first to manufacture cars for the public in 2015, though their prototypes aren’t the most attractive vehicles on the road.

While we already have automated features in current car models, such as cruise control, automatic braking, and even self-parking functions, turning over control of the steering wheel and gas pedal is another matter entirely. Autopilot for airplanes has been in existence for quite some time, but there aren’t as many obstacles in the air as on land, so government entities and engineers must work together to form and test safety precautions, rules, and regulations.

For the time being, these driverless car models will still have fully functioning steering wheels, brakes, and acceleration, with the ability to turn the autopilot system on or off as desired. We haven’t reached full automation just yet.

Futuristic technologies that are being used and tested for driverless cars include:

  • Lidar – light detection and ranging
  • GPS – global-positioning system
  • Computer vision – cameras attached to cars

Lidar is similar to radar, but instead of using radio waves, it uses light. This system measures how lasers bounce off reflective surfaces, and in doing so it captures information about millions of tiny points surrounding the vehicle every second.

GPS functions just as the system works in your car. The maps are uploaded to the driverless cars and the computer navigates the roads using the precise GPS locations, as well as a computer system linked to things like red, yellow, and green traffic lights.

Computer vision systems might be the most practical but least plausible option on their own, but will likely complement other technologies. Cameras attached to vehicles link in to a software program that reads the images and warns the car of things like pedestrians, construction, potholes, and cyclists.

There’s no doubt that many sensors will be involved with driverless cars out on the open roads, and hiding these sensors will be one of the manufacturers’ major challenges. While safety is the number one priority, it’s safe to say that today’s consumer economy still values a sleek appearance and decent horsepower, which is one reason why it took so long for hybrids and electric cars to make it in the automobile industry.

At this point, driverless cars are still in prototype stages but with so many big companies working on driverless car technology, we may see them on the streets sooner than later.

Reading Comprehension

Driverless Cars Quiz

Writing

INTERMEDIATE: Would you feel comfortable owning a driverless car? In 200 words, give your opinion on the pros and cons of driverless cars, and make predictions about the future of automobile transportation.

ADVANCED: As driverless cars become more popular, responsibility for accidents and traffic violations will become more complicated. Discuss potential hurdles (parking laws, insurance, registration) in 200 words, and who might be responsible for them (manufacturers, owners, governments).

The Future of Materials and Dematerialization

Does dematerialization actually lead to more overall materials?

Topics: Our Future Lifestyle Skill Point: First Conditional – if Clauses

We like to believe that if we produce something using fewer materials, we will reduce material consumption for the future. In the last three years, China used more cement than the United States used in the entire 20th century. The world produced over twice as many aluminum cans in 2010 as we did in 1980, but with 680,000 fewer tons of aluminum. For regular cars, we’ve more than doubled the number of miles we can drive per gallon of gas since 1972, but we’ve also increased the weight of those cars by about 70% per car. We’re exponentially growing more efficient, and this efficiency leads to lower costs of production, higher accessibility, and an overall increase in materials used as consumer demand continues to rise.

There’s no doubt that the use of more and more materials has greatly improved the quality of life world wide over the last 100 years. The Industrial Revolution brought about a new era of technology and efficiency, and we haven’t slowed down since. Materials such as concrete, steel, and paper are crucial to middle class comforts and statuses, but as we attempt to bring the world’s poorest people into the middle class, what impact will these comforts have on the environment? Historian Vaclav Smil poses an interesting question in his newest book, Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization – if we raise billions of people out of poverty (through materialization) will we destroy the environment?

On one hand, a simple material such as concrete has clearly contributed to pulling thousands out of extreme poverty by helping along the expansion of urban areas. Concrete is the foundation for the majority of infrastructure around the world. But at what cost to the environment? Where will all that concrete go? And as we bring more and more people into the urban world and expand modern infrastructure, what will happen to the first generation technology that is so quickly discarded?

Relative Dematerialization

In many cases, we like to believe that less is more. In Smil’s words, less has become an enabling agent of more, in something he likes to call “relative dematerialization”. We find a way to streamline production, such as with the aluminum can: each can of aluminum decreased in weight from 19 grams to 12 grams. We now save 7 grams of aluminum per soda can compared to the 1980’s. However, those savings mean we can actually make more soda cans, and we do. The total amount of aluminum used per year has gone from 817 million kg in 1980 to 1.1 billion kg in 2010.

While some people worry that the upper limit for our favorite materials is being reached, there’s no real fear of running out of most materials. As Bill Gates states, “Humans have an amazing capacity for finding ways around scarcity by using materials more efficiently, recycling them, or finding substitutes.” The bigger concern is the impact that finding, extracting, and using these materials will have on the environment for decades to come. It’s wonderful when we can come up with methods that use less energy and produce less carbon, but the end result is still more materials and nowhere to discard them.

 

Reading Comprehension

 

Writing

INTERMEDIATE: Can you think of one or more situations in which you or someone you know discarded a material in order to upgrade to a newer model (a phone, computer, etc.)? What happened to the discarded version? How long was it in use before being replaced?

ADVANCED: Using information from the article, and your own knowledge or research, explain in 200 words how materials have in the past and can in the future help reduce poverty and increase the middle class.

Will Inequality Grow in the Future?

Eric Schmidt of Google predicts that financial inequality will be a major challenge for democracies around the world.

Topics:  Economics  Our Future  Skill Point: Future Tense

San Francisco is a favorite city for many people all around the world. A Mecca for tourists and foodies, but these days most definitely known for its booming tech market. According to Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt, this very this is creating a startling financial inequality that is sure to become the “number one issue of democracies,” in the coming years.

It’s no surprise that Google is concerned with growing inequalities. Activists in San Francisco and Silicon Valley are regularly targeting big-name bosses and investors like Marissa Mayer (Yahoo!) and Ron Conway (angel investor) as parts of the problem. They’ve criticized the tax breaks given to the technology sector, and protested the private shuttles big companies like Facebook and Google provide to their employees.

The global wage gap continues to widen, according to the World Watch Institute. High incomes are inflating the costs of living, including rent, throughout tech-heavy areas. Meanwhile, the average worker’s wages are falling behind, and smaller companies are fighting to keep up with labor productivity growth. There are close to 200 million unemployed, according to the International Labor Organization.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the income gap is more prevalent in some democratic countries than in others. In 2011, Norway had the highest hourly wage in the world, at $64.15, with the Philippines at the low end at $2.01.  The U.S. and Japan are in the middle, while Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the rest of Asia fall into the lower half of the hourly compensation numbers.

In a recent TED Talk, Schmidt promoted his new book, The New Digital Age, but not without a warning to the world regarding the changing future of democracies. We’ve known about the growing income gap, and even though Occupy Wall Street has fallen from the media’s eye, nothing seems to have changed.

Schmidt and Conway both believe we all, but especially the giants in the tech industry, have a responsibility to the future of democracies to try and reduce this income gap. Conway asks big tech businesses to donate their unused office space to startups that can’t afford raising rents, to adopt a school and provide guidance and materials to the teachers and administration, and to donate 1 million community service hours, among other charitable recommendations.

Schmidt provided three solutions:

1) Support Startups

The future is changing, and startups are shaping the landscape with new ideas and strategies. The main problem with the widening financial inequality is the high unemployment rate and the comparatively larger wage commanded by more tech-savvy workers. In order to keep new jobs coming, Schmidt proposes we support new startups as they spring up, and welcome their ideas. The next Twitter could be right around the corner.

2) Improve Education & Connectivity

One of the reasons there is such a gap in income is the small percentage of those able to do these high-paying jobs. With more education in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM industries), there will be more and more individuals qualified for these positions. Both Schmidt and US President Barack Obama are pushing for more education in these fields in order to fill out the tech industry’s growing job market. (Schmidt even states that all jobs unrelated to “creativity and caring” will soon be replaced by robots.)

3) Build a Safety Net

There is a limit to how many people the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) industries can employ. Schmidt suggests building a (public) safety net for those who lose their jobs with the changing market, so they have access to necessary amenities like homes and healthcare.

This subject is one we’re sure to see more about.

Reading Comprehension

Writing

INTERMEDIATE: Choose one of the solutions Google’s Eric Schmidt presents to combat the growing inequality gap. In 200 words, give reasons why you agree or disagree with his solution, and how you might implement or change it.

ADVANCED: Why do you believe the global wage gap continues to widen? Do you think a certain person, country, or demographic is responsible? Are there any reasonable solutions? In a rational and sensible way, answer these questions and defend your argument.

Japanese High-Tech Indoor Vegetable Factory

We all know that plants require sunlight to grow, but maybe not for much longer.

Topics:  International  Our Future  Skill Point: Adverbs of Degree

The Japanese have a bit of an obsession with perfect fruit. You might have seen the headlines in May when Dole Japan announced it would sell their fancy bananas for $6 each. Dole developed these “perfect” bananas by selecting the best qualities from over 100 bananas and growing them 500 meters above sea level. Another Japanese fruit company, Toyoka Chuo Seika ripens bananas to the sound of Mozart, which apparently results in a sweeter final fruit. Tokyo has a luxury fruit boutique that sells strawberries for $3 a piece, and square watermelons for $212.

The most recent news in Japanese agriculture has branched out a bit from expensive luxury fruits to sustainable indoor vegetable factories. No, this isn’t a greenhouse; this is an indoor facility that grows vegetables without any sunlight.

Instead of harvesting the natural energy of the sun, Japanese plant physiologist Shigeharu Shimamura teamed up with GE to create an indoor plant-growing facility that uses specialized LED lights that emit wavelengths optimal for plant growth. The LED lights are probably the most important part of the farm’s magic. Shimamura controls the night-and-day cycle, and says, “We want to achieve the best combination of photosynthesis during the day and breathing at night by controlling the lighting and the environment.”

The benefits of growing vegetables in an indoor facility are many. Their initial motivation was born out of a desire to do something about the food shortage in the Miyagi Prefecture following the earthquake and Tsunamis of 2011. Shimamura found an old Sony Corporation semiconductor facility and converted it to the indoor farm. It is about 25,000 square feet, or almost half the size of an American football field. This small farm is already producing 10,000 heads of lettuce a day, without any interruptions by pests, viruses, or pollen, or the use of pesticides.

While an indoor vegetable farm is definitely one way to avoid a freak summer storm or a really bad drought, Shimamura says the vegetables themselves are healthier. They’re packed with more vitamins and minerals because of their growth cycle, and without soil cultivation, the risk of contamination by E. coli and Salmonella is practically nonexistent. Additionally, since 90% of the plant is cultivated for consumption, the food waste is reduced significantly. With the complete control of temperature, humidity, and irrigation, the farm uses just one percent of the water used by field farms. Considering these benefits, Shimamura estimates the indoor facility is 100 times more productive than a standard outdoor farm.

With better irrigation, higher productivity, and protection from pests and the elements, indoor gardens, farms, and vegetable factories might be a future we can all expect in the next few years. Shimamura is prophetic with the name of his company, Mirai, which means “future” in Japanese. Is the “future” of agriculture realistic? Is it better? Only time will tell.

Reading Comprehension

Writing

INTERMEDIATE: In 200 words, mention each of the benefits of this indoor farm, according to the article, and give your opinion. Write whether it is good or bad for Japan, the world, or your country, and how it might help or hurt.

ADVANCED: Explain how you believe agriculture, international trade, or your home meals might change as a result of worldwide indoor vegetables farms.

All Work No Play in the 21st Century

Economists say we’ve got more disposable income than ever before, so why can’t we find disposable leisure time as well?

Topics:  Our Future  Technology  Skill Point: Contractions

In the beginning of the 20th century, capitalist countries were thriving. The nineteenth century was full of possibility, providing us with such useful technological advancements as petrol, electricity, steel, rubber, cotton, chemical industries, automatic machinery, and assembly-line methods of mass production. The economist John Maynard Keyes took these new efficiencies as a sign that we were headed in the right direction. He projected we would eventually become so efficient that a 15-hour workweek for his grandchildren would be the norm. He felt so strongly that he composed an essay titled, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” and listed the biggest future problem to be so much leisure that we’d have nothing to do.

Nearly a century later, Brigid Schulte, a reporter for the Washington Post, published a book titled, “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.” Much to the contrary of Keynes’ prediction, twenty-first-century Americans have less leisure time in their lives than ever before, and feel incredibly swamped and overwhelmed.

Schulte set out to find the reason for “the overwhelm” by tracking her own time, attending a seminar for time use and a focus group in Fargo, and visiting the stress center at Yale. To summarize, she gives us a number of theories.

Busier Than Thou: In our habit of keeping up with the Joneses, we want to out-busy them as well. Busy is a sign of success and prosperity, and though we complain about it endlessly, we’re slightly bragging about it as well.

Thinking about it too much: Another theory is that we actually do have a decent amount of leisure time, but we just don’t feel like it. If we’re playing with our kids or spending time with our spouses, this should feel like leisure time. However, we tend to think about our to-do list, check our phones, draft emails, and answer business calls during this “leisure time,” which eliminates any relaxation we might have gained.

Inequality at home: On average, women who work full-time jobs are still doing twice as much of the housework as their male counterparts. Their “second shift” at home is causing extreme feelings over overwhelm because, well, they’re doing two jobs. Yet, this theory only truly explains a working mom’s feeling over being overwhelmed.

While Keynes’ was correct about prosperity, and Schulte found many reasons for busyness, one thing she forgets to mention is consumption. Sure, we feel harried, and we have plenty of money to buy everything we need, but in our consumer’s economy, we continue to find new things to need, according to “Revisiting Keynes,” published in 2008 by two Italian economists, Lorenzo Pecchi and Gustavo Piga. We practice leisure through simultaneous consumption, according to Swedish economist Staffan B. Linder, by smashing our enjoyable activities all together (watching TV, drinking expensive craft beer, eating sushi, and hosting a party) and over stimulating ourselves for a couple of hours. We learn how to enjoy leisure by seeing people enjoying leisure all around us. Instead, we see people enjoying consumerism and we follow suit.

Reading Comprehension

Writing

INTERMEDIATE: Select one theory presented by one of the economists above and write your reaction to it. It can be agreement or disagreement. 200 words.

ADVANCED: In 200 words, pretend you are writing from the viewpoint of a modern-day Keynes. What reasons might be give for why leisure hasn’t caught up with prosperity?

Will Robots Take All the Jobs?

The future of the workforce is upon us, and jobs left for humans might be scarce.

Topics:  Our Future  Technology  Skill Point: Fewer or Less

According to The Future of Employment by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, nearly half of jobs could be automated in the next 10-20 years. If you think the job market is bad now, imagine it with even more employable individuals and 50% fewer jobs.

Clearly not all jobs are easily replaced – we still haven’t found a way to replace health care workers, upper management, and decision-makers – but many jobs, including more dangerous ones, are better off handled by machines without risk of “human error.” Others are handled by machines simply because automation is more efficient. The tedious and repetitive tasks are first to go. Robotic arms can easily replace assembly line workers, automation can take over for telemarketers, and many of us have already replaced our tax preparers with online software programs. Until now, robots have stuck to more factory-related fields, but the newest innovations in computer technology will allow for more advanced artificial intelligence.

With an exponential rise of processing power, computers are getting smarter. They can quickly “learn” a set of human actions, and are increasingly more effective at recognizing fraud, identifying faces, and diagnosing illnesses. The Oxford University study thinks that 47% of all jobs will be capable of automation within the next two decades. It sounds like a disaster for the economy, but there are pros and cons to every type of innovation.

One thing we know is that history repeats itself, and no matter how resistant to change we may be, embracing innovation is the heart of technological evolution. The Industrial Revolution made a wide array of jobs completely obsolete, but launched dozens of new industries with even more jobs over several decades. Innovation breeds innovation, creates newer and better jobs, and supports safer and more efficient operations. More robots means fewer accidents and injuries, and more affordable goods and services for the general public.

We also know that the short-term effects are likely to be harsh. Income gaps will widen, several industries will shrink or disappear almost overnight, and it may take businesses years to rebound. Yet still, these problems are seen as temporary. Long-term benefits outweigh these issues. Each stage of advanced technology unleashes a new level of comfort and prosperity, and the highest skilled workers will be compensated the most.

Innovation in general is the perfect motivation for entrepreneurs. Huge companies in the tech industry such as Google and Facebook started as tiny entrepreneurs dreaming up new products that humanity never knew it needed.  These new and more advanced robots are likely to have a similar effect. The creative power of innovation is like a tsunami wave – you almost don’t realize what’s going on until you’ve ridden the wave a thousand feet and the landscape around you has changed.

Most of us agree that technological progress makes the world a better place. (For example, fewer than fifty years ago, dozens of diseases were certainly fatal, and those same diseases are now curable with a simple shot.) We know that streamlining work for the sake of efficiency is good, unless it sacrifices the quality or integrity of the product. And we never know if it will until we try.

Reading Comprehension

Writing

INTERMEDIATE: If you heard that a computer program was much more likely to diagnose illnesses more effectively than your general doctor, would you switch from standard care to automated care? In 200 words or less, answer this question, and discuss the potential pros and cons of automated health care.

ADVANCED: Come up with as many examples you can for when innovative technology replaced individual jobs. In 200 words, explain a few of them, and describe the pros and cons of these technological advancements. Feel free to include any type of pros and cons, such as social, financial, political, and environmental.