January/February 2010

Automation by the Numbers


In 30 or 40 years, we will have microscopic machines traveling through our bodies, repairing damaged cells and organs, effectively wiping out diseases. Author and futurist Ray Kurzweil said anyone alive come 2040 or 2050 could be close to immortal, according to his interview with Computerworld. The quickening advance of nanotechnology means the human condition will shift into more of a collaboration of man and machine, as nanobots flow through human blood streams and eventually even replace biological blood, he added. Limbs could be regrown. Backed up memories and personalities also could be accessed after a head trauma.


The National Research Council issued a report that estimates it could be 2028 or later before the fuel savings outweigh the additional up-front cost for plug-in vehicles. The report said the biggest reason for the higher up-front cost of a plug-in is the battery. The battery pack for a car capable of going all-electric for 10 miles would add about $3,300 to the cost, the authors estimated. They said the battery pack for a car that can go 40 miles without using gas would add about $14,000 to the car's cost.


The U.S. is counting on cows to help save the planet. The Associated Press reported an agreement with the American dairy industry is in place to reduce the industry's greenhouse gas emissions 25% by 2020, mostly by convincing farmers to capture the methane from cow manure that otherwise would be released into the atmosphere. Agriculture accounts for about 7% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. The plan calls for persuading more American farmers to purchase an anaerobic digester, which essentially converts cow manure into electricity.


NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) lifted off over the Pacific Ocean at the end of 2009 on its way to map the entire sky in infrared light. WISE will see the infrared colors of the whole sky with sensitivity and resolution far better than the last infrared sky survey, performed 26 years ago. The space telescope will spend nine months scanning the sky once, then one-half the sky a second time. The primary mission will end when WISE's frozen hydrogen runs out, about 10 months after launch. Because the instrument sees the infrared, or heat, signatures of objects, it must be kept at chilly temperatures. Its coldest detectors are less than -447°F. Near-Earth asteroids, stars, planet-forming disks and distant galaxies all will be easy for the mission to see. Hundreds of millions of objects will populate the WISE atlas, providing astronomers and other space missions with a long-lasting infrared roadmap.