Posts Tagged ‘Learning’
Review: Jolla Phone Has Design Flare But Sailfish’s Waters Are Muddied By App Issues & UI Learning Curve
Jolla is a very small fish trying to make headway in global smartphone waters dominated by the whale-sized Android OS. In its plucky attempt to make a splash, building its own phone hardware as well as floating a new software platform, the Sailfish OS makers have crafted a device that’s different — sometimes refreshingly so — but the Jolla phone’s difference can frequently manifest itself as difficulty. The device asks its users to row against the current, requiring they accept a lot more that’s rough than smooth.
- 4.5-inch, 960x 540, 245ppi display
- 16GB storage
- Dual-core 1.4GHz processor, 1GB RAM
- 8MP rear camera, 2MP front camera
- 4G/LTE, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi
- Bluetooth 4.0
- MSRP: €399/$ 540 unlocked, off-contract
- Product info page
- Can run Android apps
- Interface navigation can work well one-handed
- Impressive attention to smaller design details
- Swappable NFC backplates for extra colour & function modding
- Very few native apps
- Android app compatibility/stability issues
- Interface has significant learning curve & navigation can be confusing
- Mid-range hardware; unspectacular performer
In recent years, smartphone hardware design has converged to adopt mostly the same slab-shaped template — unsurprisingly so, being as the interesting stuff is what a large enough, responsive enough touchscreen acting as a canvas for the software running on it lets you do. Any alternative hardware form factors — sliders, physical Qwerty keyboards and so on — just get in the way or put a limitation on the software. The main smartphone design trend over the past few years has therefore been for screens to get bigger to allow for more prodding.
Jolla’s first phone, for all the startup’s talk of doing things differently, does not buck this trend — presenting the user with a rectangle slab of touchscreen glass to act as their playground, albeit one that’s relatively modest in size by current palm-stretching standards. It’s still a little larger than the current crop of iPhone screens, though.
The main hardware design flare here is the sandwich form factor of the slab, created when the backplate is pushed onto the body of the phone. The edge where the two pieces meet leaves a continuous seam which give a little extra grip as you hold the phone. The test device I was using came with a white backplate, contrasting with the black front for an attractive two-tone look.
If brightly coloured phones are your thing there are options to select a more boldly coloured Other Half (as the backplate is known). The first batch of Jolla handsets, launched by Finnish carrier DNA, had a bright pink rear. Jolla has also now started selling an aloe green Other Half via its website, along with a black option for those that want a less stand-out look.
The backplates aren’t just about adding a splash of colour; they include NFC to support a link with the software, allowing a particular colour backplate to also change the theme colours of the OS (for instance). And potentially support other implementations, such as being preloaded with digital content such as a music album. Or those are the sort of use-cases Jolla is hoping to encourage.
It has also released the 3D files for The Other Half as an SDK to encourage developers to get modding the backplates. And with a power (and bus) connector incorporated into the back of the phone where the backplate snaps on, it would be possible for an Other Half to include sophisticated additional hardware functionality, such as a Qwerty keyboard or e-ink screen. (Not that either of those possible Other Halves have been built yet — but the hooks for extending the platform in such ways are ready and waiting).
The handset casing is plastic front and back — so does not feel as premium as metal/glass clad devices like the iPhone or HTC’s One device. But Jolla’s attention to detail in aspects of the hardware design, such as its mixture of rounded edges with smooth blunt ones, and a gloss logo invisibly inked on the matt backplate that jumps into reflective view when you tilt the device, give the design a confident, sure-footed air, and help to elevate the overall look and feel beyond the plebian plastic Android hoards it’s attempting to disrupt.
Similarly aesthetic touches are evident in aspects of the software too, whether it’s Jolla’s calendar app with its subtle flip animation that turns Sunday to Monday as you scroll, or the dual-dial interface in the Jolla clock app for setting a timer by positioning two glowing beads within two concentric circles, or the understated double tap gesture that can be used to wake the phone from sleep. A distinct design flare is evident.
Size-wise (and weight-wise), Jolla’s phone is a good middle ground, with enough screen to showcase whatever content you’re playing around with, without being so big the actual device becomes unwieldy. That said, if you’ve already pushed past the 5-inch phablet mark for your personal mobile device you’ll probably miss the extra space. So the one-way-street of mobile phone screen inflation goes.
What’s really new here is of course the Sailfish OS — which carries on the MeeGo heritage that Jolla took from Nokia when the startup’s core team left to carry on developing the platform Nokia was abandoning in favour of making the leap to Microsoft’s Windows Phone.
As a platform MeeGo had plenty of promise but its timing was terrible. Even when Nokia outted the N9 (way back in 2011) Android was pushing ahead of the rest of the field. Now, for Jolla, it’s not so much a gap between Android and everyone else as a gulf. Even the industry’s third placed OS, Windows Phone, (which has been kept afloat by Redmond’s deep pockets), remains a bit-player in an Android-saturated universe.
Realistically Sailfish stands no chance of achieving mass market penetration — but then it’s not really being positioned for that. Jolla’s appeal has mostly been about serving the non-mainstream margins; aka the fringe folk who are dissatisfied with vanilla and are looking for a less orthodox flavour. People who are bored by the functional similarity of Android and iOS, and don’t see a Microsoft-branded alternative as an non-mainstream alternative.
That is necessarily a smaller and more modest market. Indeed, it may be more of a niche than a market but that remains to be seen. Outside Jolla’s native stamping ground of Finland, where national pride and Nokia-fuelled nostalgia may help to buoy up Jolla’s little boat, Sailfish’s greatest chance for building scale is likely to be out East in China — a region that was an early focus for the startup.
However, Jolla has concentrated the launch of this its first handset on Europe (and indeed, on Finland thus far), and appears to have rowed back from talk of a strong early push into China — with no follow up to its 2012 announcement of a distribution deal with Chinese retailer D.Phone. So momentum in the East is not a story it can currently tell, beyond the implied potential of the previously announced Hong Kong-based Sailfish alliance. Ergo, Sailfish’s Eastern promise also remains to be seen.
What exactly is different about the Sailfish OS? The Jolla phone interface is built around a series of gestures — pulling down on the screen typically brings a contextual menu into view, and simultaneously incorporates a selector bar so the same fluid movement is used to both point to and select the action from the menu — depending on when/where you release your finger. So, for instance, in the email app, the ‘compose new email’ or ‘update’ actions reside just off-screen, in the pull-down menu.
The advantage of this type of drag interface is you can perform actions with the same (single) finger movement, without having to lift off and tap. So there are potentially some time/efficiency savings, plus the ability to control more of the OS with a single digit, rather than being forced to use two hands to navigate. For certain groups of users with dexterity issues or a disability affecting their hands/arms Sailfish navigation could therefore be a bit less challenging than the tap-happy mainstream mobile options.
Another aspect of the Sailfish navigation is built around swipes. A swipe up from the bottom of the screen brings up an events/notification screen. Swiping in from the left or right is used to close the app you’re currently in — or partially close it (if you pause the gesture mid way through), by allowing you to peek back at the home screen. You can then either reverse the gesture to go back into the app, or follow through to minimize it and land back on the homescreen.
Why would you want to peek at the homescreen? Because it contains a series of minimised apps that are displayed like a deck of cards, each containing glimpses of active content allowing you to see if there’s a new email in your inbox, for instance, or a glimpse of the latest content on a website.
For native Sailfish apps, such as the built in Jolla browser, there is support for functional interaction right from the homescreen card itself — so you can refresh webpages or trigger a call to open up a new webpage just by dragging your finger left or right on the browser card itself. Similarly you can pause/play music from the media homescreen card, and so on.
At this granular point, the Sailfish interface can resemble a Russian doll of nested gestures. For a user who takes the time to get to know all these short cuts, the interface certainly has the potential to feel fluid and productive. But, on the flip side, all these gestural layers and incremental short-cuts can end up piling a confusing amount of possible navigation options atop the OS, resulting in a steep learning curve for the Sailfish newcomer.
Beyond the user-education challenge, Sailfish’s reliance on gestures is not without other problems too. The main problem with the side-swipe gesture is that it can mis-register as one of the back/forth swipes also used to move between multiple menu screens in apps. And vice versa. So you can end up closing an app, when you were just trying to get to the next screen. Or doing the reverse.
Misregistered actions like that serve to confuse a navigation system that is already at a disadvantage because it’s different to mobile’s mainstream, and therefore involves the aforementioned disadvantageous learning curve.
Knowing when you can swipe or pull down to reach other menus also isn’t always obvious, so the user has to know to be on the look-out for Sailfish’s visual cues — either a glowing bar at the top of the screen, or small glowing dots that indicate the number of additional screens available for swiping to.
Add to that, at times, when — intuitively — you feel you should be able to simply reverse the swipe action you just did to reverse your path and return to the screen you were just on, you find you can’t — and instead have to pull down to retrace your original steps via the contextual top menu.
There is a logic there, but it’s not exactly taking the path of least resistance from the user’s point of view. So the interface can sometimes feel as if you’re being made to do something not because it’s better/easier, but just because it’s different. Which can be irritating.
The navigation also doesn’t do away with taps entirely — which does mean that when you need to tap on something to confirm an action, rather than pulling down to bring up the contextual menu, it’s not always clear that’s what you need to do to proceed. Ergo, more confusion.
The functions supported by the homescreen cards also take some getting used to, especially as non-native Sailfish apps (such as the Android apps that are compatible with the device) don’t include support for gestures. And those native apps that don’t have any additional gestures sometimes resort to signposting that lack — with a written instruction on the card to ‘tap to continue’ — to avoid further user confusion about whether they support gestural interaction or not. But having to do that is rather sub-optimal (and potentially introduces further procedural confusion where apps don’t include such signpost text).
The card-based homescreen is a potentially richer alternative to the icons of iOS and Android. However the size of the cards can limit their functionality as portals into what’s going on elsewhere in your apps. The Jolla phone supports a deck of up to nine cards displayed on screen at once. When there are more than four cards their size shrinks so the text/content displayed on them can be tricky to make out. The cards are far more useable when larger — so when there’s between one and four on screen (as pictured left) — allowing for content to be displayed more comfortably, and gestural interaction to be less fiddly.
As a ‘glanceable’ interface, the Jolla phone homescreen shares something with BlackBerry 10 — with its panel of ‘Active Frames’ — or Palm’s WebOS. Or, to a lesser extent, with Windows Phone’s info-displaying Live Tiles. Sailfish’s support for gestural interaction with its own take on homescreen cards does take things a little further than Live Tiles. Whether that ability adds significantly to the interface, or is better described as more of an incremental benefit, depends on which apps you use, and the sort of actions you regularly perform.
If, for instance, you’re often checking in on a particular webpage or regularly refreshing your inbox for new content, then being able to perform such actions right from the homescreen without having to dive into the app itself may be a boon. But it’s a little hard to shake the feeling that the usability benefit here is relatively incremental. If you have a new email, you’re going to have to fire up the inbox to read it anyway — and even iOS, with its static icon-based homescreen, sticks a little red digit on your email icon telling you when its time to go check in.
One area where Jolla has delivered a really usable slice of software is the native Sailfish keyboard. The touchscreen keyboard incorporates a scrollable next-word suggestion bar above the Qwerty layout which offers an evolving rack of words to choose from as you’re typing.
The typing time-savings can be considerable here as multiple word suggestions can fit on the screen so the chances of the right one cropping up before you’ve finished spelling it out are good. Plus, even more words lurk just off screen where you can pull them in with a quick swipe on the bar.
It’s a great use of available (and implied, i.e. off-screen) screen real-estate to support a smarter kind of touchscreen keyboard. Better than the static old iPhone keyboard? Absolutely!
Jolla has built a series of what it terms “essential apps” for the phone that you can download during the set up process, or snag direct from the Jolla Store later on. These include basics such as a media player, email, maps (powered by Nokia’s HERE), calendar, clock, notes, calculator, documents viewer etc.
This is Jolla filling in the Sailfish platform gap itself, as — being the new kid on the mobile block — it’s unable to rely on a substantial third party developer ecosystem to do that for it.
Essential here is a synonym for ‘basics’. These Jolla-made Sailfish apps really are the bare-bones that any mobile user would expect to get as standard on a smartphone. If you want more ambitions apps — and really, which modern mobile user doesn’t? — from ephemeral messaging to insanely frustrating gaming, well, Sailfish isn’t going to be able to deliver. Not yet, and perhaps not ever on its own.
There are a handful of native Sailfish apps made by developers other than Jolla available for download on the Jolla store. But, including Jolla’s essentials, there are less than 200 apps in total on the Jolla Store in total right now — and that includes plenty of very simple stuff like an age calculator app, and kitchen timer and torch apps, plus some apps that have evidently been ported from Android. The Sailfish app ecosystem clearly remains very nascent.
Jolla’s solution for this app gap — or more accurately this ‘app gulf’ vs Android and iOS — is to add a pipeline into the Android ecosystem to allow for a sub-set of apps to be siphoned off via platform compatibility with Android. The preloaded hub for Android apps on the Jolla device is Yandex’s app store – which holds some 85,000 Android apps for downloading and extend the device’s functionality.
Jolla users can also download other Android app stores (i.e. in addition to the Yandex store) to get access to additional Android apps, although Google’s Play ecosystem is obviously off limits.
Jolla’s line in to the Android app ecosystem is an inelegant fix for a platform that wanted to provide an entirely alternative mobile reality. But when your platform lags the mobile category leader by circa one million+ apps then it’s a necessary compromise. And that pragmatism means Jolla’s device gets a much needed leg up in the app stakes vs other smaller players also trying to crack the Android/iOS duopoly (such as Mozilla and its HTML5 Web apps approach with the Firefox OS).
It is not a trouble free compromise though. The main problem with this approach — ignoring the core philosophical one of having to incorporate the very thing you dislike (including having to tolerate Android navigation keys cropping up within Android apps to sprinkle additional confusion over your alternative navigation system) — is that Android apps don’t always run smoothly in the Sailfish OS environment.
This was true when I did a hands-on with the Jolla phone back in November. And it’s still true now, although the big bug evident then, of the Android runtime sometimes spontaneously taking over the interface, appears to have been sorted now. App compatibility issues are an ongoing problem, though.
Many Android apps — including the Yandex app store — run sluggishly, with noticeable lag. Some Android apps are also unstable after installation — Skype for instance stopped responding after a moment’s use (although, to be fair, the Skype app is pretty universally terrible, regardless of the mobile platform you’re accessing it from). Plus, certain actions within Android apps aren’t supported within Sailfish — which triggers a dialogue box when you try to do something you can’t, informing you that such and such an action isn’t possible. Such is the price of compromise.
But, when the Android apps do work, their line in to a dominant ecosystem does help to expand the Jolla experience for its users, providing access to a lot more app ‘essentials’ — whether that’s Facebook or Twitter or Cut The Rope. Whatever your particular app poison. Just so long as you don’t expect the next Flappy Bird viral hit to be natively spawned on the Sailfish platform.
Some performance issues on the Jolla phone are clearly directly associated with its Android emulator feature, such as the laggy apps discussed above.
More general handset performance issues that affect the Jolla phone likely relate to what is effectively (on paper) a chunk of pretty mid-range smartphone hardware.
The handset is not a powerhouse in the processor stakes — certainly not by today’s flagship phone standards (which is one of the problems with having a long development time to get your debut device to market, as Jolla has). This relative lack of horsepower translates to overall performance that has a tendency to feel a bit plodding.
There are times when the interface has noticeable lag — such as when taking a photo and watching the shot you’ve just snapped slide off screen and onto the (off-screen) camera roll. The delay isn’t huge but it’s noticeable.
Likewise, the browser can feel a little underpowered when tackling certain websites. And seem a little slow to scroll and respond to taps. Transitions from one type of content to loading another also require a spot of micro-patience from the user.
The response time lag is more pronounced when running (some) Android apps, as noted above.
Native Sailfish apps fair better, as you’d expect, but there it’s not so much overall performance that’s the issue but the aforementioned paucity and scarcity of app quantity and quality.
Elsewhere on the performance front, the handset’s rear camera is distinctly mid-range. Photos lack crisp clarity, and the lens struggles with variable light levels. Likewise, the handset’s qHD screen is far from pin-sharp. Again, these aspects of the Jolla phone are distinctly mid-range.
Battery life at least does seem pretty good, both on standby and for active use. The phone should easily manage a day’s normal use without needing a recharge.
The Jolla phone’s gesture-based interface has a steep learning curve for newbies, and considering how embedded most mobile users are with Android/iOS navigation paradigms that’s inevitably pushing water up hill. Floating a whole new platform so long after Android and iOS set sail also means Sailfish can’t hope to compete on quantity of native apps — or indeed on attracting hoards of developers, so it’s a tough ask for it to deliver high quality third party native apps either.
That huge app gap means Jolla has been forced to tether its dingy to the very Android leviathan it’s trying to circumvent — to extend the reach of its dinky Sailfish ecosystem in the hopes of building sustainable momentum. It’s a practical and pragmatic strategy but it’s also an ongoing compromise that muddies this new platform’s clear blue waters.
UWS on itunes U Presented by Mark Hodson, Digital Media Coordinator, Blended Learning Team.
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Coursera is already one of the leading providers of MOOCs (or massive open online courses) in the US, and its now getting a helping hand from none other than the US government in broadening its worldwide ambitions. The company announced a new initiative today that will see it partner with the State …
It was the final night of classes at Singularity University‘s March 2013 Executive Program, and we, the students, had been given a valedictory assignment: Predict the future.
For the past six days, the 63 of us had been immersed in lectures on the nearly limitless potential of artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, and bioinformatics, and now the moment had arrived for us to figure out what we really believed and ponder the big questions. Was a transhuman future — the Singularity — really only three decades away, as SU's chancellor and co-founder Ray Kurzweil had prophesied? Were we really on the brink of a cure for all viruses and an era of radical energy abundance? Would we soon be able to choose to live forever? How many glasses of wine would it take until our group of entrepreneurs, executives, and hippie mystics got impatient and just resolved to build a time machine?
Inside Singularity University's airy classroom on the campus of NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, the SU staff distributed about 50 sheets of paper, many bearing newspaper headlines from this radical but not-too-distant future. (A future that, shockingly, still included a print newspaper industry.) We were instructed to break up into small groups to decide when in the next 20 years these world-changing milestones would come to pass.
“LIFE EXPECTANCY REACHES 150 IN AMERICA” blared the first headline. I stared at it incredulously. Life expectancy in the United States was currently 79. For the life expectancy to hit 150, that would mean… I started to do some back-of-the-napkin calculations. One of my fellow classmates, the 66-year-old chairman of an international law firm, was quicker to formulate his answer. “According to a gerontologist in England, the first person to live to 1,000 has already been born,” he told us. “I'm not sure I believe that, but everyone thinks that the first person to live to 150 has already been born. I'd even say the first person to live to 200 has been born.” The other five of us nodded our heads. We collectively decided that U.S. life expectancy would reach 150 within the next 10 to 15 years.
The next headline declared: “ROBOT LEAVES EARTH, MINES OTHER PLANET AND BRINGS MATERIAL BACK TO EARTH.” A number of us exchanged sidelong glances. Progress in space had slowed dramatically in the post-Apollo era. A group of planetary exploration enthusiasts — among them the film director James Cameron and SU co-founder Peter Diamandis — had recently backed a company seeking to mine asteroids, but it was hard to imagine those missions were imminent. Then Diane Murphy, Singularity's PR executive, sidled up to our table. “Elon Musk already announced a plan to create an 80,000-person colony on Mars starting in 15 years,” she said. Gently admonished, we decided that planet-mining robots would be operational in the next decade.
After half an hour, the entire class reconvened in SU's main lecture hall to compile our predictions into a master chronology. This is the future we foresaw: Five years from now, a majority of medical doctors will consult with artificial intelligence before making a diagnosis; a genetic-engineering service for fetuses will be an increasingly popular resource for expectant parents; and a synthetically manufactured virus will be found spreading in the wild. Five years after that, 100 million people will have watched the World Cup via virtual reality glasses, and laptops, tablets, and mobile devices will have been abandoned in favor of more immersive computer systems. Jump another half-decade ahead, an AI will be given lead authorship of a scientific paper and a zoo will open that houses 10 species that went extinct more than 15,000 years ago. By 2033, our collective vision became murky: One small group predicted that synthetic grass would have cleaned up 100% of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, arresting the progress of global warming and beginning to reverse its pernicious effects. Another group decided to write their own headline: “WORLD ENDS.”
“So how many people here had arguments about something they barely knew existed six days ago?” asked Kathryn Myronuk, SU's director of research. Hearty laughter broke out across the room.
The evening was now a haze, with most of us buzzed on merlot. It was 10 p.m. The lights dimmed in the conference room. Music came crashing over the speakers, and a few students launched into a sweaty dance. In an adjoining room where a late-night bull session on the nature of consciousness had transpired earlier in the week, more bottles of wine were emptied, with a pride of leonine European venture capitalists leading the bacchanal. The party carried on into the wee hours. The future looked bright.
Mary Altaffer / AP Photo
Techno-utopianism is hardwired into Singularity University. Kurzweil and Diamandis founded the organization in 2009, at a time when both men were coming off career triumphs. Kurzweil — an inventor most famous for pioneering the flatbed scanner, creating reading machines for the blind, and developing a line of synthesizers popular in the '80s and '90s (he is, unsurprisingly, friends with Stevie Wonder) — had gained a new level of fame in 2005 with the publication of The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, a best-selling manifesto making a scientific case for a merger of man and machine that would collapse distinctions between physical and virtual reality and even life and death. (Kurzweil sets the date for this event horizon at 2045.)
Meanwhile, Diamandis had seen the X Prize Foundation, a passion project he founded in 1995, spur the successful development of the first private spaceship to make multiple passenger-carrying flights. On a hiking trip in Chile in 2006, Diamandis was toting The Singularity Is Near in his backpack when he decided to found a school based on its ideas.
Kurzweil and Diamandis had little trouble amassing powerful friends. Genentech, Google, Cisco, Nokia, and Autodesk lined up to be founding partners of Singularity University, and Google CEO Larry Page played a key role in shaping the organization's mission. At SU's founding conference in September 2008, Page leapt up and told the assembled group that Google would back the organization if it dedicated itself to “addressing humanity's grand challenges.” Kurzweil and Diamandis were happy to oblige, and “improving the lives of a billion people within a decade” became a key plank of SU's founding platform. (This January, Page hired Kurzweil at Google to help develop software that better understands natural language, how humans actually communicate.)
SU continues to expand the scope of its grand ambitions. It remains an educational institution, offering weeklong executive education courses like ours and a 10-week summer immersion primarily for young entrepreneurs. It has also become an elite Silicon Valley conclave, staging a three-day invitation-only schmoozefest on the Fox Studios lot in Los Angeles that brings together big-time CEOs like LinkedIn's Reid Hoffman, science heroes like Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and tech-curious celebrities like Ashton Kutcher, Will.I.Am, Jodie Foster, and Seth Green. And as of last year, Singularity University is a startup incubator, surrendering its nonprofit status to take an equity stake in companies developing emergent technologies like lab-generated beef and laser-printed DNA. Upon SU's launch in 2009, Peter Diamandis told the Associated Press, “We expect the next generation of multibillion-dollar companies to come out [of] this university.” It's perhaps telling of this healthy self-regard that the organization's logo, a serifed “S” inlaid in a shield, recalls nothing so much as the emblem Superman wears on his chest.
Larry Busacca / Getty Images
It was a beaming Saturday afternoon in mid-March when the Executive Program attendees arrived at Singularity University's principal classroom, a low-slung building on the 2,000-acre campus of NASA's Ames Research Center. The skeleton of Hangar One — a 1930s airship garage that was once the world's largest freestanding structure — loomed nearby. Many of us were jet-lagged after flights from São Paulo, Amsterdam, Tel Aviv, and Mumbai, but nearly everyone seemed giddy. We were an almost comically eclectic group: a square-jawed brigadier general in the U.S. Marine Corps; a fried-chicken magnate from Cali, Colombia; a Brazilian fashion researcher; the tan and buff mayor of a small California city; a former Goldman Sachs partner who described himself as “an explorer on a journey”; a Canadian geophysicist who had spotted “four or five” UFOs as a young man; a puckish 40-year-old named Malek who had toured the world as the indie-rock act Jupiter Sunrise; and two business magnates who were among the first to purchase flights on Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space airlines. The seven-day Singularity University Executive Program, it seems useful to mention at this point, costs $ 12,000.
Singularity University, we were told immediately and often, wanted to teach us to “recognize the power of exponential technology” by “rewiring our brains” to “think exponentially.” Exponential technologies, as we learned on that first afternoon, are simply technologies whose principal measures of capability increase by multiples — instead of growing linearly (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), they grow exponentially (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32). In computing, exponential growth has long been observed in a phenomenon called Moore's Law that states that the number of transistors on a silicon chip doubles every 18 months or so. Such rapid enhancement is the reason that your smartphone is a million times less expensive and a thousand times more powerful than the supercomputers of 40 years ago. Kurzweil's contribution to the theory of exponential growth has been to take the principles behind Moore's Law and apply them to everything from cellular biology to interstellar space travel. Kurzweil calls this “The Law of Accelerating Returns,” and it gets very radical, very fast. “In the 21st century,” he writes in The Singularity Is Near, “we will witness on the order of 20,000 years of progress (again, when measured by today's rate of progress), or about 1,000 times greater than what was achieved in the 20th century.”
Later that day, as we celebrated our initiation into this brave new world with a feast of paella under the stars, I sought out the Canadian geophysicist and UFO spotter, figuring he might have an interesting take on what it means to experience “20,000 years of progress” in 100 years. It turned out this was his second turn at Singularity this year. He'd made the trip from Toronto to Silicon Valley only two months earlier for a weekend-long workshop with Kurzweil and Diamandis. “The whole thing is fucking addictive,” he said. “Ray and Peter are the high priests. I wanted to come back to get more of the practical side.”
I asked him about his UFO sightings.
“I was out prepping a 40-pound drill one night doing geochemical sampling in Saskatchewan,” he said. “Then I saw two brilliant, luminous, soundless discs. They combined into one. And then they were gone.”
“Do you believe in the Singularity?” I asked.
“Oh, I have a theory about what the Singularity might look like.”
“Well, I can't tell you,” he chortled. “I might write a book about it!”
Eric Benson / BuzzFeed
The next morning, the 63 of us arrived back at the main classroom, plowed through a gourmet breakfast buffet, and plopped into our pastel-colored swivel chairs for 14 hours to listen to a marathon of lectures. We learned that artificial intelligence was all around us — Pandora, Siri, IBM's Watson, Amazon.com recommendations, credit card fraud detection, shoot-'em-up video games like Call of Duty — but that soon we'd be able to create a single, massive artificial intelligence that would, as one instructor put it, “master the accelerating wave front of human knowledge.”
We learned that mapping the human genome took the U.S. government 13 years and $ 2.7 billion, now takes a lab as little as three days and $ 2,000, and in 10 years will be done instantly for less than it costs to flush a toilet (under a penny). We learned that in 18 years some people will be able to live for “an arbitrarily long period of time,” and that we ought to consider cryogenic freezing if we fail to make that cut. We learned that the nation-state is an outdated model at risk of being disrupted and that the future will belong to city-states — the Bay Area, to pick a random example — and global corporations. We watched videos of robots serving as pack mules over broken terrain and heard that wars in the future would be fought entirely by AI-enhanced machines.
But all of that was just the beginning. A day after our lectures on AI, bioinformatics, and robotics, Ralph Merkle, a legend of Silicon Valley — a cryptography innovator, cryonics enthusiast, nanotechnology evangelist, and potbellied reminder that computer geeks didn't always aspire to tech-brohood — arrived at SU to imagine the 21st century for us.
Nanotechnology, he said, would soon enable you to hold your breath at the bottom of a pool for an hour (via red-blood-cell-replacing respirocytes), allow for reverse aging (via nanobots called chromallocytes that would insert fresh chromosomal material into your cells), and end global warming (via solar-powered diamond trees that transform carbon dioxide into oxygen). “We'll have materials that are over 50 times stronger than steel for the same weight,” Merkle said. “A single-stage-to-orbit space vehicle would weigh about 3,000 kilograms including fuel. That's about a VW bus. You hop in — you and four passengers and a bit of luggage — and you take off into low-Earth orbit. You'll be able to go anywhere in the solar system in a month for a few thousand dollars. I don't think we'll have these kinds of technologies in 20, 25 years; I think it'll be more 30, 35, maybe 40.”
“What could block it?” someone shouted from the back.
“Oh, I don't know, nuclear war would block it pretty effectively,” Merkle drolled.
“So basically it's going to happen,” the student shot back.
Would it surprise you to hear that multiple lecturers used examples from the films Minority Report, Gattaca, and Prometheus to explain their subjects? Standing in the lunch line one day, a Marin County entrepreneur named Kent and I got into a conversation about all the futuristic talk we'd been hearing. He showed me his iPhone's Kindle app, where he'd amassed a collection of titles by cult writers like “techno-thriller” novelist Daniel Suarez and William Hertling, author of A.I. Apocalypse and Avogadro Corp: The Singularity Is Closer Than It Appears.
“A lot of what we've been hearing sounds like science fiction to me,” I said. “It's taking the concepts of science and extrapolating them into fantasy.”
“No,” he politely corrected. “This is science catching up with fantasy.”
Courtesy of the Singularity University
Introducing Niek Blankers! From The Netherlands, the Work Experience program offered Niek the ability to work with a company this summer. On July 15th 2013, …
The author explores the wide array of Google tools and shows how to use them in the classroom to engage students and foster digital learning.
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Tags are so 2008. Google doesn’t want you to waste time tagging your photos, except for the people in them. The web giant wants to be able to recognize more abstract concepts like “sunset” or “beach” automatically and attach that metadata without further input. In yet another post-I/O update, Google+ photos now uses computer vision and machine learning to identify objects and settings in your uploaded snapshots. You can simply search for “my photos of trees” or “Tim’s photos of bikes” and get surprisingly accurate results, with nary a manually added tag in sight. You can perform the searches in Google+, obviously, but you can also execute your query from the standard Google search page. It’s pretty neat, but sadly Mountain View seems to have forgotten what cats look like.
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A recent study by researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center has revealed new properties of human brain cells understood as astrocytes, utilizing them to improve discovering ability in mice. Experts injected the cells– formerly viewed as relatively worthless helpers to more main neurons– into the brains of a team of mice, then checked the animals against a control team provided extra cells from their own types. After a six-month maturation period, those injected with human cells were able to learn their way around a maze significantly faster, and were likewise able to rapidly link an unique noise with an electric shock.
Released in the diary Cell Stem Cell earlier this month, the research has the possible to change …
Babbel’s been doing a solid job of picking up users as it attempts to help people around the world learn new tongues over their lunch breaks, but evidently, it’s not picking up steam in the US as well as it would like. The remedy? Buy the market share one so desires. Today, the company has announced the acquisition of San Francisco’s own PlaySay — a language learning company that has been tearing up every app store it approaches since launching at TechCrunch Disrupt in September of 2011. With that, however, comes some pretty unfortunate news for users. PlaySay apps are going to be yanked 45 days from now, with website visitors funneled over to Babbel’s site. Moreover, we’ve confirmed that none of PlaySay’s technologies will be integrated into Babbel’s programs, and that only PlaySay’s founder (Ryan Meinzer) will remain on staff as an “adviser.”
We’ve got nothing but love for Babbel’s software, but what this means for consumers is simple: one less player in the space, and a dead-end for the technology that was developed in order to launch PlaySay. Of course, we aren’t going to pretend that this type of thing doesn’t happen all of the time, but alas….
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