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Liquid Robotics to Usher Era of Smart Oceans With Autonomous Robots

XPRIZE   |   September 18, 2012    4:19 PM ET

By Jason Dorrier
Contributing Writer, Singularity University.


When Liquid Robotics' Ed Lu dreams, he sees thousands of his firm's Wave Gliders blanketing the sea--a smart grid for the ocean. It may yet be a dream, but Lu's vision isn't terribly far fetched. The firm's Wave Glider robots have logged 100,000 miles, braved 20 foot seas, and faced gale force winds. One of its gliders, G2, survived and transmitted data 60 miles from the eye of Hurricane Isaac. Proof of concept? Check. The next challenge for Liquid Robotics is convincing their target market to give the tech a try. But beyond scientists, just who exactly is their market?

That's what Lu, chief of innovative applications at Liquid Robotics, is trying to figure out. See him pitch the Wave Glider at this recent TEDx talk:

You may remember how the Wave Glider works from our first Liquid Robotics article, but here's a refresher. On the surface, it's a surfboard (the float) about seven feet long and loaded with solar panels and a customizable sensor array. Below the surface, the glider converts wave motion into forward thrust to tow the float--no fuel, no fuss.

Lu is no stranger to tough problems and innovative solutions. He's an electrical engineer, astrophysicist, and ex-astronaut. Now at Liquid Robotics, he sees a wide assortment of applications--commercial, government, and research.

Continuous, real-time ocean data would make ocean commerce safer. Nations could better guard exclusive economic zones. The craft could gather intelligence data for defense purposes--it has no radar cross-section and makes no noise.

The best argument in favor of the tech is its combination of mobility and low cost.

We already have ocean sensors, but they're expensive. Ships cost $10,000 to $100,000 a day to operate. Moored deep water buoys are cheaper but still run $200,000 to $1 million a year. Clients can buy a Wave Glider outright for $200,000 or lease glider time at $1,000 to $3,000 a day.

The glider is more mobile than a buoy and can stay out longer than a ship (in any weather) for a fraction of the cost.

At the moment, 50% of Liquid Robotics clients lease data, so many of the gliders are piloted from the firm's headquarters in Sunnyvale. "All [clients] have to do is define their business problem, and we provide them with the data they need."

The last few years have been a flurry of financing, engineering, testing, and publicity--including recent articles in the New York Times, Wired, The Wall Street Journal, and Forbes.

In 2011, the firm received $22 million in venture financing from VantagePoint Capital partners. Later in the year, they embarked on a 300 day, 2.25 million data point, cross Pacific journey. The gliders made it from California to Hawaii intact and have since embarked on the second leg of their trip, two to Japan and two to Australia.

In all, Liquid Robotics "has deployed more than 100 of the robots around the world on missions for climate scientists, the oil industry, and the US military." But now their tech is proven, they are looking to expand that number dramatically.

In June, the firm signed onto a joint venture, Liquid Robotics Oil & Gas, with energy giant Schlumberger. The gliders will be used for seismic monitoring, measuring currents for rig building, and detecting oil seepage from drilling. The new venture should significantly raise the number of operational units in the field.

In August, the firm started Liquid Robotics Federal--a wholly owned subsidiary led by Beltway veteran Grant Palmer--to pursue federal defense contracts in need of "cost-effective solutions to persistent surveillance, monitoring, and communications on the seas and coastlines."

Researchers are warming up to the technology too. NOAA is testing a Wave Glider named Alex in the ocean north of Puerto Rico this fall, hoping to gather crucial hurricane data to improve forecasting. Meanwhile, the Ocean Tracking Network is using gliders to track fish--a difficult task. Unlike aquatic animals that breathe, fish don't surface often (maybe never) to ping tracking satellites.

All told, prospects look good for these autonomous ocean going robots. But how Alex does in hurricane season will be a key test in the harshest conditions. Glider G2 performed well in a Category 1 hurricane. What about in rougher weather? Will the tether hold? Might the system get flipped and tangled in the milieu?

Also, they're not deal breakers, but the gliders do have some weaknesses.

Wildlife encounters are likely to increase as they get more machines in the water--a shark already damaged one glider. Further, they aren't the most powerful vehicles. The top speed is just two knots. "If there's a hellish current coming, we could be cutting through the water rapidly, but going backwards."

There may also be a latitudinal limit to the technology. Operating in the Arctic Circle could sap the batteries during long cloudy stretches--without power, there's no way to steer. And being constrained to forward motion could prove troublesome in icy seas.

That said, Liquid Robotics isn't standing still. The next generation of gliders are already under development at the firm's Kona laboratories.

Roger Hine notes they are focusing on "knots, watts, and carrying capacity." Clients may currently choose from 65 sensors, but the lab is testing 152 more. CEO Bill Vass says, "We're working on putting a mass spectrometer on it" and "a full genetics lab that will suck in salt water and count the microbes and break down their DNA in real time." Ambitious!

Whatever the ultimate configuration, the technology is proving viable and useful.

Maybe one day in the not-too-distant future Ed Lu's dream will come true. He says, "You manage what you measure. Well, if you don't know what's going on out in the oceans, how can you manage it?"

A smart grid is great, but we might soon have a smart ocean.

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This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

Insights From Student Innovators

XPRIZE   |   September 13, 2012   12:54 PM ET

2012-09-13-Stephanieheadshot150x150.jpgBy Stephanie Shapiro
Stephanie is an Associate in Prize Development at the X PRIZE Foundation.

When I joined X PRIZE a few months ago, I was given the task of coordinating the judging process for the 2012 MetaPrize award. This $2,000 award is given to students participating in a semester-long Prize Design course through our X PRIZE Labs, which are designed to engage the next generation of leading thinkers in recognizing areas that are ripe for breakthrough innovation. As a recent grad student and a strong proponent of experiential learning, I was particularly interested in this prize, which gives students a hands-on opportunity to research and design their own prizes.

The winners of the 2012 MetaPrize are Jill Arnow and Jesse Burns, students from the University of Washington's Evans School of Public Affairs. Their H2Energy proposal focuses on low-water aviation biofuels. The goal is to address water, land, and energy constraints by incentivizing the creation of 3rd+ generation aviation biofuels with no impact on food supply and minimal impact on water supply. The prize would incentivize a round-the-world demonstration flight using the winning biofuels.


I asked the winners a few questions about their experience with prize design:

X PRIZE: How do you think prizes can solve social and environmental problems?

Jill Arnow: Prizes can incentivize change where market forces are weak. There is little incentive, in our current economic structure, to search for environmental or social fixes. The Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup CHALLENGE is a good example where companies had no impetus to improve the technology prior to the prize offering. The work of finding a potential prize area, in a way, starts to clarify areas that are ripe for change or ready for people's creative input.

Jesse Burns: Furthermore, prizes seem to be an effective tool for targeting a specific piece of a larger social or environmental problem. Prizes seem to offer the opportunity to decompose these complex problems into discrete problems that can then serve as the focus for the prize. While the traditional analytical method for public policy typically focuses on creating mathematical models to understand and address social and environmental problems, prizes take a different approach. The process of decomposing problems to create a prize provides a similar, though less intuitive, model of what is causing the problem. Additionally, prizes address behavioral and social variables that traditional mathematical models do not adequately capture.

X PRIZE: What is unique about the prize design process?

JA: Designing a prize feels like thinking sideways -- we're so accustomed to solving problems, it takes a while to re-adjust your thinking to defining a problem and a prize that incentivizes a solution. Once you've defined the problem, then you have to define the boundaries that are grand enough and broad enough to allow more than one or two possible paths to a solution while also being interesting for the participants of the prize. Overall, designing a prize is a very multidisciplinary activity, as it requires using and combining insights from a variety of fields, such as marketing, economics, anthropology and psychology.

X PRIZE: How do prizes encourage people to think differently about problems?

JA: When designing a prize, it's tempting to say there's a big problem and a prize will automatically solve it. Instead, prize design requires finding a way to describe a problem in a solvable package and think about making it intriguing to try to solve that problem.

JB: This is challenging, as it requires not just identifying a problem, but thinking about the barriers to overcoming the problem. Often, the emphasis on prizes seems to focus on making a new product or technology. However, the success of the prize may hinge on less defined variables, such as how quickly will the product diffuse in the market and how quickly new technologies are evolving. Thinking simultaneously about creating a new technology as well as how to diffuse the new technology in the market requires developing a holistic view of what the problem truly is that the prize is addressing.

X PRIZE: What was the most exciting part about your course?

JA: We had some amazing guest speakers from around the University of Washington and the greater Seattle area talking about philanthropy, innovation, water issues (which was the focus of our prize design) and more. The class was also so different from any other course I was taking that it forced thinking out of the box.

JB: As a public policy student, I think seeing how prizes can serve as another tool to address market failures was the most exciting. The tools currently used by policymakers to address market failure, such as rules and regulations, tend to follow a top-down implementation method that values certainty. Prizes, on the other hand, offer a way to reframe a problem in a way that may uncover new insights for policymakers.

X PRIZE: Which of the eight X PRIZE design criteria did you find to be the most challenging to address in your prize concept? (Grand Challenge, Market Failure, Transformative, Measurable, Achievable/Audacious, Marketable, Leverageable, Operable/Fundable)

JA: For our prize, I think measurability was the most challenging aspect. Developing a new metric that incorporated water consumption into fuel efficiency involved understanding what fuel and water metrics are currently being used. Additionally, trying to determine how a new metric might work in practice, make sense to the market, and resonate with consumers was challenging.

X PRIZE: What advice do you have for other students designing prizes?

JA: Have fun, be willing to try many, many ideas before finding something that works, talk to lots and lots of people, and work collaboratively.

JB: Prizes are about problems, so really understanding the problem and not jumping to solutions is critical. A quote attributed to Einstein became more relevant throughout the prize design process: "If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding solutions."

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Self-Driving Cars From Google On The Road Toward Approval In California

XPRIZE   |   September 7, 2012    6:48 PM ET

DavidJHill.jpgBy David J. Hill
Contributing Writer, Singularity University.

Google's efforts toward getting more self-driving cars on the road just scored a big victory: the California Senate unanimously passed a bill favoring autonomous vehicle operation on the roads of the Golden State. Though the bill isn't on the same level as last year's legislation in Nevada that ultimately led to the legal operation of the cars there, it permits the Department of Motor Vehicles and California Highway Patrol to set safety and performance standards for self-driving vehicles. If California eventually follows Nevada's lead, Google's car could be taking a driver's test to get a license and open access to public operation soon, perhaps next year as the bill would go into effect in January 2013.


Senator Alex Padilla, who authored the bill, has become an advocate for the autonomous technology in the public policy sector. At a press conference announcing the legislation in March, he said, "I envision a future that includes self-driving cars," and added "Developing and deploying autonomous vehicles will not only save lives, it will create jobs. California is uniquely positioned to be the global leader in this field."

Now the bill has to be approved by the State Assembly, which is expected to give it the green light within the next month, and then eventually head to Governor Jerry Brown's desk. In terms of passing laws for driverless vehicles, California is not alone in it's recent move -- similar legislation is being considered in Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, and Oklahoma. It's only a matter

The momentum is gaining for autonomous vehicles to become a common form of transportation, even as the debate about their safety and utility continues on.

To date, Google's self-driving cars have made some significant strides in just a few years. It was only in mid-October of 2010 when a post went out on Google's official blog announcing to the world that it had been working on robotic cars and that over 140,000 miles had been driven. In 2011, the car made news when it was involved in an accident, which turned out to have occurred when a human driver took over. Along with all the developments in Nevada to legalize the vehicles, the company released a video in March of this year of its first customer Steve Mahan, who is legally blind. Recently, the autonomous fleet passed a significant milestone by logging over 300,000 miles, and employees would now start commuting with the cars on their daily routes.

Along with increasing safety on the roads and spurring one of the few innovations gaining traction in the automobile industry, autonomous cars could have a huge impact on the auto insurance industry. Apparently, Google has already been in talks with insurance carriers about what the cost of coverage would be. In a state like California where auto insurance rates are some of the highest in the country, a significant dip in policy cost could be a big seller for self-driving cars, that is, once Google actually starts selling them.

Another potential cascade of benefits could come to Californians with the adoption of autonomous vehicles. Part of the struggle with implementing the use of robotic cars is that they have to strictly follow speed limits -- no checking around for the police and putting the pedal to the metal. Since higher vehicle speeds use more gas, keeping cars under the speed limit is good for wallets, along with being safer. If significant numbers of autonomous vehicles are on the road, they could even be used collectively to control the flow of traffic, which might help minimize traffic jams, thereby decreasing commute times and avoiding all that stop-and-go traffic that wears down vehicles and it bad for the environment. Finally, Google could continue creating jobs as it research, design, and manufacture the systems close to its current operations in Mountain View and the secret Google X Lab believed to be in the Bay Area, where the autonomous cars were developed.

Considering all the good things that could come out of a shift to AI-controlled transportation, it's no wonder that the California senate voted 37-0 in favor of the bill.

It's exciting to see how quickly things are moving for autonomous vehicles to become available in light of how regulated transportation is in the US. If only the same degree of progress was being made in high-speed rail.

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This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

Can high speed rail compete with self-driven cars, improved airlines and all the technology of the future?

XPRIZE   |   September 6, 2012    2:06 PM ET

2012-08-09-bradtempleton.jpgBy Brad Templeton
Director of the Electonic Frontier Foundation, and Chair of the Networks and Computing Systems Track at Singularity University.

There's been much debate in the USA about High Speed Rail (HSR) and most notably the giant project aimed at moving 20 to 24 million passengers a year through the California central valley, and in particular from downtown LA to downtown San Francisco in 2 hours 40 minutes.

There's been big debate about the projected cost ($68B to $99B) and the inability of projected revenues to cover interest on the capital let alone operating costs. The project is beginning with a 130 mile segment in the central valley to make use of federal funds. This could be a "rail to nowhere" connecting no big towns and with no trains on it. By 2028 they plan to finally connect SF and LA.

The debate about the merits of this train is extensive and interesting, but its biggest flaw is that it is rooted in the technology of the past and present day. Indeed, HSR itself is around 50 years old, and the 350 kph top speed of the planned line was attained by the French TGV over 30 years ago.

The reality of the world, however, is that technology is changing very fast, and in some fields like computing at an exponential rate. Transportation has not been used to such rapid rates of change, but that protection is about to end. HSR planners are comparing their systems to other 20th century systems and not planning for what 2030 will actually hold.

At Singularity University, our mission is to study and teach about the effects of these rapidly changing technologies. Here are a few areas where new technology will disrupt the plans of long-term HSR planners:

Self Driving Cars

Cars that can drive and deliver themselves left the pages of science fiction and entered reality in the 2000s thanks to many efforts, including the one at Google. (Disclaimer: I am a consultant to, but not a spokesman for that team.) By 2030 such vehicles are likely to be common, and in fact it's quite probable they will be able to travel safely on highways at faster speeds than we trust humans to drive. They could also platoon to become more efficient.

Their ability to deliver themselves is both boon and bane to rail transit. They offer an excellent "last/first mile" solution to take people from their driveways to the train stations -- for it is door to door travel time that people care about, not airport-to-airport or downtown-to-downtown. The HSR focus on a competitive downtown-to-downtime time ignores the fact that only a tiny fraction of passengers will want that precise trip.

Self-delivering cars offer the option of mobility on demand in a hired vehicle that is the right vehicle for the trip -- often a light, efficient single passenger vehicle that nobody would buy as their only car today. These cars will offer a more convenient and faster door-to-door travel time on all the modest length trips (100 miles or less) in the central valley. Because the passenger count estimates for the train exceed current air-travel counts in the state, they are counting heavily on winning over those who currently drive cars in the central valley, but they might not win many of them at all.

The cars won't beat the train on the long haul downtown SF to downtown LA. But they might well be superior or competitive (if they can go 100mph on I-5 or I-99) or the far more common suburb-to-suburb door to door trips. But this will be a private vehicle without a schedule to worry about, a nice desk and screen and all the usual advantages of a private vehicle.

Improved Air Travel

The air travel industry is not going to sit still. The airlines aren't going to just let their huge business on the California air corridor disappear to the trains the way the HSR authority hopes. These are private companies, and they will cut prices, and innovate to compete. They will find better solutions to the security nightmare that has taken away their edge, and they'll produce innovative products we have yet to see. The reality is that good security is possible without requiring people arrive at airports an hour before departure, if we are driven to make it happen. And the trains may not remain immune from the same security needs forever.

On the green front, we already see Boeing's new generation of carbon fiber planes operating with less fuel. New turboprops are quiet and much more efficient, and there is more to come.

The fast trains and self-driving cars will help the airports. Instead of HSR from downtown SF to downtown LA, why not take that same HSR just to the airport, and clear security while on the train to be dropped off close to the gate. Or imagine a self-driving car that picks you up on the tarmac as you walk off the plane and whisks you directly to your destination. Driven by competition, the airlines will find a way to take advantage of their huge speed advantage in the core part of the journey.

Self-driving cars that whisk people to small airstrips and pick them up at other small airstrips also offer the potential for good door-to-door times on all sorts of routes away from major airports. The flying car may never come, but the seamless transition from car to plane is on the way.

We may also see more radical improvements here. Biofuels may make air travel greener, and lighter weight battery technologies, if they arrive thanks to research for cars, will make the electric airplane possible. Electric aircraft are not just greener -- it becomes more practical to have smaller aircraft and do vertical take-off and landing, allowing air travel between any two points, not just airports.

These are just things we can see today. What will the R&D labs of aviation firms come up with when necesessity forces them towards invention?

Improved Rail

Rail technology will improve, and in fact already is. Even with right-of-way purchased adaptation of traditional HSR to other rail forms may be difficult. While expensive, maglev trains have seen some limited deployment, and while also expensive and theoretical, many,including the famous Elon Musk, have proposed enclosed tube trains (evacuated or pneumatic) which could do the trip faster than planes. How modern will the 80s-era CHSR look to 2030s engineers?


Decades after its early false start, video conferencing is going HD and starting to take off. High end video meeting systems are already causing people to skip business trips, and this trend will increase. At high-tech companies like Google and Cisco, people routinely use video conferencing to avoid walking to buildings 10 minutes away.

Telepresence robots, which let a remote person wander around a building, go up to people and act more like they are really there are taking off and make more and more people decide even a 3 hour one-way train trip or plane trip is too much. This isn't a certainty, but it would also be wrong to bet that many trips that take place today just won't happen in the future.


Like it or not, sprawl is increasing. You can't legislate it away. While there are arguments on both sides as to how urban densities will change, it is again foolish to bet that sprawl won't increase in many areas. More sprawl means even less value in downtown-to-downtown rail service, or even in big airports. Urban planners are now realizing that the "polycentric" city is the probable future in California and many other areas.

That Technology Nobody Saw Coming

While it may seem facile to say it, it's almost assured that some new technology we aren't even considering today will arise by 2030 which has some big impact on medium distance transportation. How do you plan for the unexpected? The best way is to keep your platform as simple as possible, and delay decisions and implementations where you can. Do as much work with the knowledge of 2030 as you can, and do as little of your planning with the knowledge of 2012 as you can.

That's the lesson of the internet and the principle known as the "stupid network." The internet itself is extremely simple and has survived mostly unchanged from the 1980s while it has supported one of history's greatest whirlwinds of innovation. That's because of the simple design, which allowed innovation to take place at the edges, by small innovators. Simpler base technologies may seem inferior but are actually superior because they allow decisions and implementations to be delayed to a time when everything can be done faster and smarter. Big projects that don't plan this way are doomed to failure.

None of these future technologies outlined here are certain to pan out as predicted -- but it's a very bad bet to assume none of them will. California planners and the CHSR authority need to do an analysis of the HSR operating in a world of 2030s technology and sprawl, not today's.

Visit X PRIZE at, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Google+, and get our Newsletter to stay informed.

This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

How To Live Forever*

XPRIZE   |   September 4, 2012    4:50 PM ET

2012-09-04-Mark.Wexler.jpgBy Mark Wexler
Mark is a preeminent documentary filmmaker, an award-winning photojournalist and an aspiring centenarian.

As a photojournalist and a documentary filmmaker, I have always been drawn to stories of the human connections that define us, an interest reflected in my work. The retreat of my hairline and the arrival of my AARP card led me to examine the most fundamental human connection of all -- life itself. Somewhere between the hyperbaric chamber and the cryonic pod, I began to fully appreciate the complexity of the issue.

A few years ago, I decided to indulge my life-long fascination with health and life-extension by making a documentary, How To Live Forever*. I added an asterisk after the title which says "Results May Vary." This was partly to be cheeky, partly to avoid being sued, and partly because my worldwide quest to discover the secrets of a long and healthy life yielded surprising and often contradictory lessons. How else can I explain Jack LaLanne, an avowed health and fitness enthusiast living on liquefied carrots to the ripe old age of 96 while Buster Martin, a chain-smoking, marathon runner (no water, thanks, only beer), lived to be 104 years old? How can that be?

I recently came across the Archon Genomics X Prize presented by Express Scripts. It is a global competition run by the X Prize Foundation that challenges teams to sequence 100 genomes of 100 centenarians (including the world's oldest known person, Besse Cooper, who recently turned 116) to a level of fidelity never before achieved. Is it entirely possible to live beyond 100 due solely to the genes of your ancestors or is it something more? While my movie explores the lifestyles of certain centenarians and how they lived to this remarkable milestone, the X Prize competition seeks to give the world the technology and the DNA so that researchers can unravel the secret of longevity. Should be very interesting.

And while the Archon Genomics X Prize will not be won until October 2013, I'm grateful that the X Prize Foundation is working to solve one of life's grand challenges and to finally remove that asterisk, because frankly, I'm getting really sick of green tea. In the meantime, I will share some of the things I learned making the film. First, never underestimate the power of the humble chili dog. By this I mean to say that the predominant trait my subjects had in common was a real hunger for life -- they were active, engaged, involved. For some, this meant competing in Ms. Senior USA pageants, for another, it meant beginning a porn career as a septuagenarian. Second, welcome each stage of your life as it comes and it won't kick your butt. Enough with the botox already. Spend that time and money helping kids in your community. You'll get back what you give ten-fold. Third, there are some really smart people figuring out how to save our bacon. Wouldn't it be great to have the health you had at twenty yet the wisdom you have at 60? Fourth, if all else fails, chill out. Cryonics might buy us the time to enjoy all the great advances our scientists will discover, and maybe we'll finally get those flying cars they promised us back in the sixties. Last, but not least, watch my film How To Live Forever* now available on DVD and iTunes. You'll laugh, you'll cry, and you might just buy a juicer.

Follow How to Live Forever* on Twitter here: @How2Live4ever

Check out the How to Live Forever* Facebook page here.

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New Software Can Diagnose Parkinson's Disease Simply By Listening To Your Voice

XPRIZE   |   August 30, 2012    8:04 PM ET

DavidJHill.jpgBy David J. Hill
Contributing Writer, Singularity University.

Software like Apple's Siri that responds to your voice is convenient and incredibly cool, but what if a similar kind of voice analysis could diagnose disease? A new initiative aims to make detection of Parkinson's disease as easy as making a phone call. Computer algorithms developed by TED Fellow and applied mathematician Max Little can analyze vocal recordings for characteristic anomalies in an individual's voice brought on by the disease. The noninvasive method can detect Parkinson's with 86 percent accuracy in blind testing of 50 voices, and the rate increases to 99 percent when individual's have mid to late stage Parkinson's.


The Parkinson's Voice Initiative has been formed to create a database of 10,000 voice recordings from people all over the world to improve the algorithms. The goal is to make the technology available to doctors within the next two years.

As Little told the BBC, "This is machine learning. We are collecting a large amount of data when we know if someone has the disease or not and we train the database to learn how to separate out the true symptoms of the disease from other factors." The effort was announced at this year's TEDGlobal.

Here is Max Little presenting the Initiative:

Unfortunately, there are no known biomarkers for Parkinson's, so diagnostic testing focuses on evaluating degrees of tremors in the clinic. Along with these characteristic tremors, voice changes are common, such as whispering, breathiness, and a shift to higher tones. In fact, the voice can be weakened by as much as 10 decibels compared to an average speaker. Though these changes can go unnoticed by a person with a disease, relatives and friends more often pick up on it, but a computer algorithm that detects nuances of speech and subtle changes could detect abberations with much greater frequency.

The technology can scale easily as patients can do the tests themselves in minutes and are as cheap as making a local phone call. This could not only help screen people for early stages of the disease, but it could also allow doctor's to track the disease progression in patients and therapists to monitor the effectiveness of voice therapies without patients having to come into the clinic. This could save valuable resources and allow healthcare workers to have more frequent checkups on patient health remotely.

To get a sense of the change in voice that occurs, check out this video from the Parkinson Voice Project, a nonprofit organization that uses intensive therapy to help individuals with Parkinson's and other neurological disorders regain their voices:

The Initiative hopes to use the software to help with patient treatment, so that drug dosage and timing could be optimized. Additionally, clinical trials could benefit from classification methods more accurate than current methods that may fail to detect some with Parkinson's. With a database of recordings available for analysis, more sophisticated algorithms could also be developed that may lead to a scoring system for disease progression based on voice alone.

The potential of this technology goes beyond Parkinson's disease as voice changes can be caused by other neurological diseases, such stroke, multiple sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS), as well as cancer that affects the throat (larynx, esophageal, neck, and even lung cancer). Voice changes also occur with viral and bacterial infection, like the common cold or flu, and are one of the characteristics of heavy smoking. So if similar types of voice recording pools could be collected and analyzed with these algorithms, the potential to detect diseases and monitor their progression could be developed.

As Gizmodo suggests, voice-analyzing algorithms might someday be integrated into a smartphone app like Siri. Even a simple app that could monitor your regular voice commands or conversations on your smartphone and pop up an alert if a significant change is detected could be a valuable tool in the coming wave of healthcare apps aimed at preventative care.

(If you are interested in participating in the study, you can find the number to call at the PCI website.)

[Media: Reuters, YouTube]

[Sources: BBCPVIUW Health]

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This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

Artificial Intelligence Will Defeat CAPTCHA -- How Will We Prove We're Human Then?

XPRIZE   |   August 29, 2012    1:47 PM ET

DavidJHill.jpgBy David J. Hill
Contributing Writer, Singularity University.


If you use the web for more than just browsing (that's pretty much everyone), chances are you've had your fair share of "CAPTCHA rage," the frustration stemming from trying to discern a marginally legible string of letters aimed at verifying that you are a human. CAPTCHA, which stands for "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart," was introduced to the Internet a decade ago and has seen widespread adoption in various forms -- whether using letters, sounds, math equations, or images -- even as complaints about their use continue.

A large-scale Stanford study a few years ago concluded that "CAPTCHAs are often difficult for humans." It has also been reported that around 1 in 5 visitors will leave a website rather than complete a CAPTCHA.

A longstanding belief is that the inconvenience of using CAPTCHAs is the price we all pay for having secured websites. But there's no escaping that CAPTCHAs are becoming harder for humans and easier for artificial intelligence programs to solve.


For example, an app developer named Andrew Munsell put a post recently about his own frustration with reCAPTCHA, Google's own version of the CAPTCHA system, after a few failed login attempts on an account. In the post, he includes a sample of the reCAPTCHAs he was presented (to the right), and many commenters chimed in with their own CAPTCHA moments. It's understandable why this is such a common experience for web users when 280 million CAPTCHAs are solved daily, according to Businessweek.

In theory, CAPTCHAs act effectively as gatekeepers for a system because of two conditions for a test:
(1) a human will pass by correctly identifying symbols or by performing a series of operations
(2) a program will fail because of its inability to recognize symbols or carry out a set of operations

Ensuring that bots are blocked means presenting a test that the software cannot complete. CAPTCHAs are commonly used for user registration, contact forms, or failed logins. These are all points of entry for spamming or phishing a userbase, and bots are created to crawl websites looking for exploits. Sites that use CAPTCHAs typically tolerate a certain failure rate for humans, but may lock out access from an IP if the failed attempts exceed a threshold.

However, the assumption is that though humans may fail to solve some of the tests, bots must always fail; otherwise, the system isn't secure because it can't weed them out. To be effective, CAPTCHAs must present tests that are beyond the capabilities of a bot's optical character recognition (OCR) or require operations that software cannot perform.

Therein lies the problem.

First, a boatload of strategies are posted around the web about how to improve recognition in scripts in order to break CAPTCHAs. These may involve ways to enhance OCR by removing noise, such as those annoying intentionally introduced lines or dots peppered throughout images. Another strategy is to manipulate the characters in an image by rotating, aligning, or warping them -- basically, many of the features that come standard to today's photo editors. Libraries of solved CAPTCHA images have also been collected, thanks to sites around the web that pay people fractions of pennies to solve tons of CAPTCHAs. Amazon Mechanical Turk used to be a popular one, but now a number of independent sites are around, such as Death by CAPTCHA. Clever hacks have even been developed for audio CAPTCHAs that merely deconstruct waveform shapes to identify what numbers are being spoken.

These techniques have been posted not just from professional hackers, but anyone who figures out a way past CAPTCHA and decides to share it. By the way, this isn't always out of malicious motives. Many of these exploits are posted by users who are generally concerned with security and demonstrate the exploit to help the company fix it.

Second, newer approaches to CAPTCHA have been developed that try a different approach to a Turing test by asking users to perform operations through input devices, like a keyboard or mouse. Some are simple in their approach, such as the MotionCAPTCHA project that requires tracing a pattern with the mouse pointer or Capy, a service in beta for touch-based devices. This kind of test may even find its way in an augmented-reality device like Google Glass by tracking eye movements as an image moves across the field of view, as a recently uncovered patent suggests.

A next generation CAPTCHA has also been developed called PlayThru from, which presents a mini game requiring image recognition, some reasoning, and mouse operations to complete. The company claims that a PlayThru presents users with five levels of interaction, a significant step up from the OCR of CAPTCHAs. Reportedly, users spend only an average of 10-12 seconds solving a PlayThru compared to 16 seconds for a CAPTCHA. More secure, faster, and an element of fun is definitely an improvement, but already attempts at hacking it have been posted on YouTube and discussed at Hack A Day.

Approaches that rely on operations performed by the user have a fatal flaw beyond the need to recognize what actions are required: they depend on computer input devices controlled by software which can be exploited in the same way that a remote desktop application does. To solve these types of Turing tests, someone will just deconstruct the steps required and program a bot to recognize what it needs to do and perform whatever inputs are required.

Fundamentally, hackers are teaching programs how to think like humans. Anyone creating a CAPTCHA system is playing a game of staying ahead of the curve, meaning they develop methods that bots cannot solve until someone teaches them to. Theoretically, this could go on and on if it wasn't for the fact that the tests are no longer simple, but have become challenging for humans. When the failure rate of humans and the success rate of bots converge, CAPTCHAs will become meaningless. In other words, the "Completely Automated Public Turing test" cannot tell computers and humans apart. We're likely on the cusp of that point.

In one sense then, the collective efforts of hackers combined with companies generating even more sophisticated Turing tests to beat are actually helping to evolve artificial intelligence. So every step backward for CAPTCHA is a step forward for AI.

It isn't hard then to see where this is going. At some point in the near future, it will be very difficult to prove to a computer that we are human and not a bot. And if you think that standard logins that we've grown accustomed too will still be useful in years to come, think again: recent reports about stolen user information from big companies like LinkedIn and Blizzard doesn't bode well for the tried-and-true username/password system. Perhaps eye scanners and blood samples are inevitable, but those are exploitable too (watch Gattaca to see a masterful exploit at work). Truth is, artificial intelligence will find more and more ways to make computers look human until finding the difference between them will be a painstaking process, something akin to the following classic scene from Blade Runner:

Lest you think that because CAPTCHAs will fail they're just a big waste of time, take heart. Google has actually been using reCAPTCHA with an ulterior motive: crowdsourcing the digitization of old newspapers and books. The sketchy reCAPTCHAs you often see are merely poor scans that Google presents so that people can collectively translate the words. Check out the series of blog posts in Techie Buzz to learn more about how reCAPTCHA works. It may help the next time you want to throw your computer out the window because you don't read scribbly.

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This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

Exploration -- Around the World Or Around the Corner

XPRIZE   |   August 28, 2012    3:27 PM ET

2012-08-28-joe150x150.jpgBy Joe Capra
Joe is a Los Angeles-based photographer and filmmaker, and winner of X PRIZE's recent "Why Do You Explore?" Video Contest for his piece "Midnight Sun | Iceland".

Exploring is something that can be done and enjoyed by everyone in this world. It doesn't matter where in the world you are, what your financial position is, or what physical shape you are in. You don't have to travel the world, go on a major expedition, or sail the world to be an explorer. Exploring can be as simple as taking a new route home from work one day, picking up a camera and photographing your surroundings, or visiting your favorite National or State parks. Often times my most memorable experiences exploring are the ones that have occurred the closest to my home, and are places most familiar to me.

One day I decided to drive a different route home from work, taking roads and side streets I had never been on. I distinctly remember coming to a fork in the road and having no idea where exactly I was or which way to go. I opted to take the left fork, which led me up into the mountains around Los Angeles. At this point I had already gone way out of my way and in the opposite direction I needed to go to get home, but hey, I was exploring and having fun. I continued up the road which ended up leading me to the top of the Hollywood hills and an amazing view of Los Angeles, all the way from downtown to Santa Monica. I had no idea I would stumble upon such an amazing location and view of the city I have lived in for 15 years. I have returned to this viewpoint many times since my initial discovery of it, and it has turned out to be my favorite secret spot in L.A. All because I decided to explore those unknown and unfamiliar streets on the way home from work that day.

Getting into photography was probably the best decision I have ever made. Photography has allowed me to not only see and explore, but also experience this world in ways most people don't. It has also been the reason for many of my travels and exploration. Photography is really what sparked my love for exploration and has become an enormous passion of mine. There is nothing I love more than travelling around this world with my camera. Photography gets me up off the couch, out of the house, away from computers and television, away from everyday life, and brings me out into the world ready for new experiences. I encourage everyone to pick up a camera (it does not have to be expensive), and go walk around your neighborhood taking pictures of anything you find interesting. I guarantee you will see some things you have never seen or noticed before. Photography allows you to stop and smell the roses, as they say. Even though your neighborhood is something that is familiar to you, walking around it with your camera and photographing it will make you see and experience it in a new way. This is what exploration is to me. I love being in familiar places, but seeing and experiencing them in new ways.

Another easy way to explore this world we live in is to visit some of your favorite places (State/National Parks, beaches, mountains), but visit them at uncommon times. As a photographer I tend to be up and outside ready to photograph well before sunrise, during and after sunset, and also well into the middle of the night. These are, and have been, some of my favorite and most memorable times to be out exploring. I have stood in Yosemite Valley many times at 3:00 a.m. and felt like I was the only one in the park, having the entire place to myself. I have done the same in Death Valley, Iceland, and many other places as well. It's a whole new experience being in places like this in the very early morning or in the middle of the night. You hear new sounds, see new things, and experience the location in ways that most people don't.

Exploring is whatever you make it, and it can be as hard or easy as you want it to be. Either way, the enjoyment you will get from exploring will be very rewarding.

Capra drove throughout Iceland for 17 days capturing 38,000 photos to create this enchanting time-lapse video, "Midnight Sun | Iceland".

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This blog post is brought to you by Shell, our Exploration Prize Group sponsor.

Startup Aims to Install Pipelines With Helicopters... Seriously!

XPRIZE   |   August 27, 2012    8:42 PM ET

DavidJHill.jpgBy David J. Hill
Contributing Writer, Singularity University.

A major earthquake strikes a town leaving power plants damaged, water pipelines broken, and roads blocked. How will people get clean water? A new startup says it has the answer.


TOHL, which stands for Tubing Operations for Humanitarian Logistics, has developed a simple method to deliver fresh water for emergency relief: install a really long plastic tube with a helicopter. And it works. The first trial run demonstrated that 1 km of high-density polyethylene pipe could be laid down over mountainous terrain and in windy conditions in just nine minutes. It's a rapidly deployable solution with low labor cost and overhead. We even have an inside scoop from VP of Engineering Melissa McCoy about the company's plans.

Using Kickstarter to raise $30,000 for the next phase of development, the team wants to expand the uses of their approach (such as water for agriculture and fuel for the military), improve equipment design to accommodate tube variations, and make their mobile infrastructure operation scalable and commercially ready.

It's just one example of how low-tech approaches can sometimes be the most elegant, straightforward solutions.

The question is, how much water can this system actually deliver? According to McCoy -- who recently graduated from Singularity University -- the system can be configured in a variety of ways, depending upon demand. When using a small capacity helicopter, she stated that "TOHL has the ability to install multiple pieces of small diameter tubing and provide a total flow rate in the range of 7 to 70 liters per minute, conservatively." Larger helicopters that can carry a greater load could deploy larger diameter tubing, thereby increasing the flow rate delivered to an area "to many multiples of 70 liters per minute." She added, "If we assume that the average person needs a minimum of 1.3 gallons (5 liters) of water per day to survive in a moderate climate at an average activity level and we're delivering 70 L/min, then that means water will be provided for 20,000 people per day. This is a best case scenario."

The team put together a short documentary about their first live deployment with help from the Red Cross to test their method:

Catastrophic natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, affect infrastructure in a variety of ways. The problems created by these events are fixable if they occurred independently, but in combination, the scale of the disaster escalates quickly. For instance, water pumps and waste water treatment plants rely on electricity, so when power is lost for long periods of time, reserves are depleted and bottled water must be transported into the zone, usually by truck. However, if roads are flooded or destroyed, rapid and widescale relief becomes near to impossible.

Now laying a pipe with a helicopter has its challenges. First of all, the helicopter is actually anchored to the ground during installation, so the spool must be engineered properly to avoid any significant tension in the line or the helicopter will be in jeopardy, especially in unstable weather conditions. Another issue is finding the right tubing that is flexible enough to wind up on a spool but resilient enough to not bend or break, either from internal fluid pressure or by being cut by plants and rocks on the landscape. Finally, the system must steadily extend the tubing to avoid stuttering and buckling that can occur when there's too much slack.

Because of how quickly the homogeneous pipeline can be installed, TOHL is ideal for disaster relief, but the system can be used for longer-term scenarios, such as setting up refuge camps. Though the tubing laid on top of the trees during the test run, more permanent pipelines can be installed by laying a tube along roads or rivers, digging a trench, and burying it. Installations along roads opens up the possibilities of using trucks to lay the pipeline, as well. The pipelines could also be used to deliver other fluids, such as fuels, as long as the material is resilient to whatever flows through it.


The company got off the ground initially with an Indiegogo crowdfunded campaign for $5,000 back in March followed by $40,000 from Start-Up Chile. Since then, it formed a partnership with Ecocopter, an ecotourism company that has been "providing helicopter services for free and advising us on technical issues," according to McCoy. TOHL also has a partnership with the Chilean Red Cross, whose land was actually the site for the first test, that has led to planned installations of 8 km of pipeline in two municipalities to aid families. Recently, it had its first sale to install 15 km of pipeline to SQM Inc., a large mining company in Chile where McCoy was an intern in 2010 while studying at Georgia Tech.

The Kickstarter campaign will help the team make some fundamental improvements to the system, especially the tubing itself. McCoy said the team is looking in to "reducing the density of the material without adversely affecting structural strength." This would be help reduce the overall weight of each spool, which would reduce the load for multiple tube deployments, for example. She added, "It is also important to investigate materials that are more tear resistant, against potential acts of vandalism during operation."

TOHL proves that innovation isn't limited to high tech solutions. In fact, cheap plastic tubing has been around since the mid 1950s, so it isn't the materials that are noteworthy, but the foolproof system being built and the potential for global rollout that are significant. President and Director of Operations Benjamin Cohen admits in the Kickstarter video that "TOHL's technology is very simple, but we can't believe that no one has ever done it before."

Getting clean water to people in need in an fast and efficient way is a no-brainer, but now TOHL is providing the solution to make this a reality.

[Media: YouTube]

[Sources: Kickstarter, TOHL]

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This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

The Exponential Rise of Lean Business

XPRIZE   |   August 23, 2012    4:19 PM ET

2012-07-31-brian.hoffstein.jpg By Brian Hoffstein
Contributing Writer, Singularity University.

What can children teach MBAs about winning the innovation game? How is the new science of entrepreneurship transforming business as usual in Silicon Valley and around the startup - and non-startup - world? After this exciting interview with Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, we'll show what kindergarteners beating b-school grads teaches us about the mindset needed to bootstrap success as an entrepreneur.

Ries recently joined the team at Singularity University as the Entrepreneurship track chair to bolster the organization's mission of incubating businesses and organizations that can positively impact a billion people. He sat down with Vivek Wadhwa to discuss how his ideas can be applied to Singularity University's grand-scale, high-tech ventures.

Back to the marshmallow challenge, an 18-minute exercise where groups compete to build the tallest freestanding structure they can from 20 spaghetti sticks, a yard each of tape and string, and a marshmallow. The only rule is that the marshmallow must sit on top. How hard can this be? Unexpectedly hard, depending on who plays. While the average group manages about 20 inches, b-school grads average less than half that, while kindergarteners rise above to 26 inches, nearly three times the b-school average.


How does this apply to innovation and your business?  Deconstructing the elements of success, the kids won, not by planning to build, but by building and failing, repeatedly - each experiment teaching them what it takes to keep the marshmallow standing.  Teamwork, risk taking, prototyping and resilience: these are the  pillars of success, and the kids handled these dynamics better than the MBAs.  Innovation through less planning and more doing outmatched traditional business-model schools of thought, and this mode has become a best practice strategy in Silicon Valley and innovation hubs around the world.

One implementation of this strategy is referred to as the lean startup movement, and its methodology has become what many call a science of entrepreneurship. Eric Ries constructed the game plan in his book The Lean Startup. His premise: start with a testable hypothesis - where your idea is possible and can be built, and customers will want what you build - and then test it with the least effort possible. This least effort product, known as the Minimum Viable Product (or MVP), validates the hypothesis using the least amount of resources you can. The goal is to quickly verify that people are interested in what you plan to create, before you sink your time, energy and money in creating it. The MVP isn't perfect, in fact, Ries likes to say that if you're not embarrassed by the first version of your product then you've waited too long.

Build, then build again, says Ries. Move from the MVP into a series of iterations that slowly but surely guide the business forward, staying honest with what he calls innovation accounting. This delineates the key metrics to measure a product's growth and ensure you're on the right track: if the math doesn't work, iterate again.  All in all, the entire system - from the idea's inception to its manifestation - should take no longer than the time it takes an MBA to write a business plan. It is this idea of rapid prototyping and flexibility in the plan (as demonstrated by our fearless youth in the marshmallow challenge) that yields the greatest chance for success.

And in an age of rapidly advancing technologies, being lean may be even more important. Technologies that are information enabled (computing, biology, even solar technologies) can speed up in a Moore's Law like fashion, according to Ray Kurzweil's Law of Accelerating Returns.  These greater speeds make for an increasingly competitive and volatile environment, and embedding agility in your business, being able to iterate and pivot when necessary, may be the difference between bonus and bankruptcy.


If business environments are changing this quickly, then lean principles to rapidly adapt could be a strategy to test at any scale, from Fortune 500 companies to startups and  local shops. Exponential trends empower you to experiment, prototype, and do a lot with a little. High speed computing, global connectivity, cloud computing and 3D Printing provide you - or your competitors - with an innovator's toolkit that barely existed just a decade ago.  With widespread access to data and the ability to get feedback in real time, a lean business is in tune with potential opportunities and resilient in the face of disruption. All of these developments have sparked an evolution in the business frontier - and only the lean will survive.

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This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

Healthcare -- 5, 10, 20 years in the past and future

XPRIZE   |   August 23, 2012    3:21 PM ET

2012-08-23-Farai_Chideya.jpg By Farai Chideya
Farai has covered Presidential elections, natural disasters, and dictatorships -- as well as the arts and technology -- in a two-decade journalism career that spans print, radio, digital, and televised media. She is currently a Distinguished Writer in Residence at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University.

Twenty years ago U.S. healthcare cost $2800, on average, per person. Ten years ago, that figure had risen to $4700 per person. And four years ago, in 2008, it was $7500 per person. (From exhibit 4A in this Kaiser Family Foundation Report.) Over the same period, the portion of Americans without insurance has risen. In 1990, 14.1 percent of Americans were uninsured. In 2000, 13.1 percent were uninsured. Today, 16.3% of Americans are uninsured (approximately 50 million people), in part because of job losses and employers cutting back on coverage.

At the same time the number of uninsured has risen, there have been stunning innovations in healthcare. As Vivek Wadhwa of Stanford and Singularity Universities writes in the Washington Post, "An example is the iPhone case that I have been testing as part of a clinical trial, which turns my phone into an EKG monitor and automatically transmits data to a cardiologist. This case is being developed by a startup called Alivecor. If approved by the FDA, this product will allow heart patients to check their symptoms whenever they want, wherever they are, and get quick feedback from their doctor. The product is expected to cost $100 or less--which is comparable to the cost of a single EKG test today." At a conference, Wadhwa showed a group of us the device, and let someone else use it. It's remarkably simple, and, apparently, cost effective.

Singularity University, at which Wadhwa is the Vice President of Academics and Innovation, is what Hogwarts might be like if the buildings and dress code were California casual, and the magic were science. (Well, the late Arthur C. Clarke wrote, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," but that's another topic for another time.) Singularity University, which offers short programs to ambitious entrepreneurs and world-changers, is focused on the practical magic of scale. One goal is to help teams work on projects that will impact a billion people for the public good within a decade. During a recent visit, I was impressed with the caliber of students and teachers, and the varied projects they aimed to tackle.

We'll need to constantly remind ourselves of the public good when it comes to healthcare innovation... all innovation, really. As I look down the road 5, 10, 20 years, I see healthcare becoming bifurcated between not only today's haves and have-nots, but between people who can afford more expensive advanced technologies and life-saving approaches. We don't even have to look into the future. One great example from the present is Steve Jobs. The Apple founder bought a house in Tennessee, where he received his transplant. As William Saletan wrote in Slate, "[T]he wait in Northern California [where Jobs lived] was three times longer than the wait in Tennessee." (Saletan also points out that few people with the kind of metastized cancer that Jobs had have ordinarily qualified for a liver transplant, because of the chance of it attacking the new organ.) The average waiting time for a liver transplant is nearly a year, but varies widely by state and medical institution.


Within the next five years, many more provisions of the Affordable Care Act will come online -- ones which protect against gender bias in insurance; prevent insurers from turning away people with pre-existing conditions; and which track health disparities due to race, among other factors. (For more on that topic, check this fact sheet on health disparities by race.)

I'm afraid that as technological innovation accelerates, we will see not a diminishment of health disparities, but an increase. Some wealthy Americans -- the Steve Jobs of the future -- will do anything they can within the system to live. Some people in other nations and even the U.S. are already acting outside of the system, for example, with illegal organ transplants. And as prototypes, for example, exoskeletons that allow paralyzed people to walk, come on market, who will receive them, and who will be able to pay? All insurance is not created equal, and certainly all healthcare isn't. So as we take a look down the road at the future of healthcare, let's keep our eye not only on what's legal, but what's ethical, humane, and fair.

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This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

Stunning Progress in Technology: The Death of Unskilled Labor

XPRIZE   |   August 22, 2012    4:47 PM ET

2012-08-22-Aaron_Frank.jpg By Aaron Frank
Contributing Writer, Singularity University.

As part of the online web series Which Way Next, hosted by Singularity University, Vivek Wadhwa, VP of Academics and Innovation, sat down with Carl Bass, CEO at Autodesk, to explore some of the pivotal technologies coming online that promise to redefine the jobs available to humans in the 21st Century. Check out the video below:

During the discussion, Bass points out that we are now at a great inflection point in the automation of labor. Extraordinary breakthroughs in the areas of artificial intelligence, robotics and digital manufacturing are all converging upon one another, yielding a world full of technologies plucked right from the world of science fiction.

The damage to the U.S. manufacturing industry caused by outsourcing was solely an issue of cost. What the developed world might consider labor camp conditions is desirable work that countries and individuals compete for overseas. In China, for example, workers line up for jobs consisting of highly repetitive tasks -- 12 hours a day, with few days off. Now the much bigger problem is that even these jobs are disappearing, not because of outsourcing but because of total automation by machine.

According to Bass, the notion that you can easily enjoy a middle class lifestyle with a high school education and a strong work ethic is just not true in today's labor market, and may never be true again. The nature of work available to humans is fundamentally evolving, and doing so overnight.

Carl Bass explains how Americans have weathered paradigm shifts in the past, evolving from a largely agrarian workforce to an urban industrial one. We struggle to envision the jobs of tomorrow, but they could come from fields like renewable energy and synthetic biology. The question no one seems to have the answer to, however, is what is to become of unskilled labor, and those hundreds of millions whose jobs are never coming back.

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This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

Forget the Euro Crisis and the Supreme Court -- the Future Is Better Than You Think

XPRIZE   |   August 21, 2012    1:32 PM ET

2012-08-06-Peter_Diamandis.jpgBy Dr. Peter H. Diamandis
Peter is the founder and chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation and the co-founder and chairman of Singularity University.

We are all unknowingly addicts. Addicts of bad news. Twenty-four hours per day, seven days a week, the news media is constantly feeding us negative stories on every digital device in their arsenal -- our mobile phones, tablets, computers, radio, television and newsfeeds. Every murder, terrorist plot, economic downturn, no matter how remote, is brought to us live, instantly, over and over again.

The reason for this is simple. Our brains are hardwired to pay far more attention to negative news, than positive stories. Millions of years ago as our brains were evolving, if we missed a piece of good news, that was an inconvenience, but missing a piece of bad news could mean the end of your life and your germ-line. For that reason, we've developed portions of our brain that are constantly scanning for bad news and thereafter putting us on high alert. The old newspaper adage, 'if it bleeds, it leads' is as true today as it was a century ago.

So it's no wonder that people think the world is falling apart, and many are in a very dark contemporary mood. But what is curious about this situation is that in nearly every measurable way, the world is much better off than it has ever been.

I'll start with poverty, which has declined more the in the past 50 years than the previous 500. In fact, during the last 50 years, while the population on Earth has doubled, the average per capita income around the world (adjusted for inflation) has tripled.

We're not just richer than ever before, we're healthier as well. During the last century, maternal mortality has decreased by 90 percent and child mortality by 99 percent, while the length of the average human lifespan has more than doubled.

As Steven Pinker has made clear, since the middle ages, violence on Earth has been in constant decline. Homicide rates are a hundred-fold less than they were when they peaked 500 years ago. So we're not only healthier, we're safer as well.

If your measure of prosperity is tilted towards the availability of goods and services, consider that even the poorest American's today (those below the poverty line) have access to phones, toilets, running water, air conditioning and even a car. Go back 150 years and the wealthiest robber barons couldn't have hoped for such wealth.

Right now, a Maasai warrior on mobile phone has better mobile communications than President Reagan did 25 years ago; And, if he were on Google, he would have access to more information than President Clinton did just 15 years ago. We are effectively living in a world of communications and information abundance.

Even more impressive are the vast array of tools and services now disguised as free mobile apps that this same Maasai Warrior can access: a GPS locator, video teleconferencing hardware and software, an HD video camera, a camera, stereo system, vast library of books, films, games and music. Go back 20 years and add the cost of these goods and services together -- and you'll get a total well in excess of a million dollars. Today, all these devices come standard with a smartphone.

During the last two decades, we have witnessed a technological acceleration unlike anything the world has ever seen. Exponential progress in artificial intelligence, robotics, infinite computing, ubiquitous broadband networks, digital manufacturing, nano-materials, synthetic biology, to name a few, put us on track to make greater gains in the next two decades than we have had in the previous 200 years. We will soon have the ability to meet and exceed the basic needs of every man, woman, and child on the planet. Abundance for all is within our grasp.

But it won't happen without your help. While accelerating technology is an awesome force, in itself it is not enough to bring on this golden age. However, there are three additional forces emerging -- and this is exactly where you come in.

The second of these forces is the rise of the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) innovator. No longer content with hot-rods and homebrew computers, in the past decade, DIY'ers (working both in small teams or collectively, via crowdsourcing) have made major contributions to fields like healthcare, energy, education, water, freedom -- areas that were once the sole province of large corporations and governments. This means that whatever challenges we face in the world - climate change, AIDS in Africa, energy poverty -- more than ever before, we are now empowered to individually help solve these problems. And it's our ability to do so, this new-found power of the maverick DIY'er, that is the second of our four forces.

The same technologies that enabled the rise of the DIY Innovator have also created wealth much faster than ever before. Tech entrepreneurs like Jeff Skoll (eBay), Elon Musk (PayPal), Bill Gates (Microsoft), etc., became billionaires by reinventing industries before the age of 35. Maintaining their appetite for the big and bold, they are now turning their attention and considerable resources towards global betterment, becoming a new breed of philanthropist--technophilanthropists -- and, as such, yet another force for abundance.

Perhaps the most significant change of the next decade will be the dramatic increase in worldwide connectivity via the internet. The online community is projected to grow from two billion users in 2010 to five billion by 2020. Three billion new minds are about to join the global brain trust. What will they dream? What will they discover? What will they invent? These are minds that the rest of society has never had access to before and their collective economic and creative boost becomes our final force: the power of "the rising billion."

We are living in a time of unprecedented opportunity.

So while I can't tell you to ignore all the negative news coming your way, I can say that the future, much like the present, is going to be a whole lot better than you think.

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This material published courtesy of Singularity University.

Meeting the Cleanup Challenge

XPRIZE   |   August 20, 2012    2:50 PM ET

2012-08-20-Don_Johnson.jpg By Don Johnson
Elastec/American Marine Team Leader, Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE

I remember the audible gasp from most everyone at the awards ceremony last year. Robert Weiss, President of the X PRIZE Foundation, had just announced that Team Elastec/American Marine had won the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE. Our skimmer system had delivered an astonishing oil recovery rate of 4,670 gallons per minute at a nearly 90 percent efficiency ratio of oil to water. In just six months, the X PRIZE Foundation had become the catalyst to advance the efficiencies of oil spill recovery more than in the previous twenty years.

Why had the breakthrough taken so long? It wasn't because we could not do it. We, as an industry, simply chose not to. Several advancements had been made over the years. But the bottom line is that if we had invested the money and developed a larger system, would customers have been willing to spend the money to inventory equipment and wait for an accident to happen? The answer was no, so we chose not to attempt it.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident prompted the X PRIZE Foundation and Wendy Schmidt to invite not just the oil recovery industry, but anyone with imagination and drive to take on a daunting challenge. The goal was to produce a system capable of recovering oil from the surface of water at a minimum rate of 2,500 gallons per minute, with an oil to water efficiency of at least 70 percent, while being towed at 1 to 4 knots -- and to do this in both calm and wave conditions.

Over 350 teams from around the world took up the challenge. Ten finalists from four nations tested their technologies in actual oil on water conditions at the National Oil Spill Response Research and Renewable Energy Test Facility (Ohmsett) test tank in New Jersey. The X PRIZE Foundation provided the right mixture of competition and monetary incentive.

The secrecy surrounding the competitors' entries lent additional incentive. When we at Elastec/American Marine first tested our grooved disc (the heart of our system), we knew we had something extraordinary. The question was, what were we comfortable with? The minimum requirement was 2,500 gpm, so that was not a "goal." We assumed that everyone else was aiming at 3,000, but what if those teams that aspired to 3,500, or even 4,000? Prior to the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE, if you were to bring up those figures in relation to skimming possibilities, you would have been dismissed as a dreamer. But the dream of winning $1 million and the fame that comes with winning one of the X PRIZE Foundation's competitions now seemed within reach.

Hearing our name announced as winner of the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE gave us reason to celebrate all the hard work. However, it turned out to be just the beginning of what we believe is a new direction in the field of mechanical oil spill collection. To conform to all of the requirements of the competition, we had to develop a forward moving skimmer collection system. That had not yet been successfully accomplished.

Conventional oil spill clean-up methods prior to the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE involved containment, then collection. Some systems could move forward and collect oil, but then the whole process ground to a halt while a skimmer was either put into the collected oil or activated so that the collected oil could be pumped into a holding tank. Attempts had been made to couple skimmers and collection booms so one could keep skimming, but you still had two different systems trying to act as one. They just did not work efficiently.

The elusive goal was to maximize the encounter rate. The Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE forced us to create a system able to encounter large quantities of oil spread over the surface. It doesn't matter if you have a system "capable" of pumping 10,000 gallons a minute. If you are not encountering the oil, you are not picking it up. Our system did just that, on a grand scale.

Now the challenge is to prove that this technology can be scaled to meet the many different environmental, transportation and deployment scenarios that occur in real-world spill situations.

The system's first generation targeted the footprint needed to fit in a small cargo plane for fast response. We developed a towable boom and skimmer system, the X150, signifying cubic meters per hour. We returned to Ohmsett to test this system, and results were good -- so good that an X250 is planned. The concept of a skimmer that can handle a large flow of water while also skimming oil opens up several possibilities: large systems for ocean spills, for instance, or systems that could be positioned across rivers, downstream from a spill, establishing a "fire line" for the capture of the oil.

The Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE brought together teams that have been in the industry for some time -- and some with fresh new ideas. We have been in communication with some of those teams and have shared technologies and ideas to enhance each other's systems. Competitive collaboration: another plus for the competition.

It is hard to describe all of the benefits we have experienced because of our association with the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE, primarily because that book has not been completed. Our system has already been honored by National Geographic and the Washington Post as among the best innovations of 2011. We also received the Regional Clean Sea Organization's "Excellence in Environmental Technology" award earlier this year in Dubai. We feel the technology that was developed as a result of the competition has definitely raised the bar and will continue to set new standards for the performance of the equipment used in the oil spill clean-up industry.

The X PRIZE Foundation and Wendy Schmidt set out "to inspire a new generation of surface oil spill cleanup technologies." With the help of all of the teams involved in the competition, they have accomplished just that. We at Elastec/American Marine thank the X PRIZE Foundation, Dr. Diamandis and Wendy Schmidt for their efforts to help keep our world clean. I hope that others will appreciate the foundation's contributions and will support it in each of its future challenges. I know that we will.

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