Here are five indicators, observations or articles that caught the eye of FA futurists today.

Image: Squidish, Flickr.

  1. An effort by ExxonMobil and Craig Ventner’s Synthetic Genomics to develop algae based biofuels is heading back to the drafting board. As a general rule, alternative biofuel technologies that look promising in the laboratory tend to fail when scaled up to industrially scaled fuel production.
  2. Researchers have developed a new one-step process for inserting multiple genes into bacteria. The process, dubbed “clonetegration,” could dramatically reduce the time and effort required to engineer genetically modified bacteria.
  3. A Chilean research team has created the first 3D printed object based on the thoughts of the user. The team linked a brain computer interface to as 3D printer, and the wearer was able to control the production of a simple object using thoughts picked up by the interface. This could lead to a more simple “think it, print it” version of 3D printing.
  4. A “bookless” library is set to open in a rural Texas county. The BiblioTech will have hundreds of e-readers to loan out, as well as screens on site for users to read on. The library is seen as a test in how to provide library services to communities, that can’t afford the cost of buying printed books.
  5. A futurist offers a positive long-term scenario for Africa, in which issues of infrastructure and agriculture have been overcome.

Here are five indicators, observations or articles that caught the eye of FA futurists today.

Image: Stew Dean, Flickr.

  1. Highlighting different ways to look at information and organization, San Francisco artist Chris Cobb created an installation at a book store in which he cataloged 20,000 books by color. (Click the link, it is a wonder to behold.)
  2. Ford is applying big data technologies to feed information back to drivers of its Energi plug-in hybrid vehicles, allowing supervisors to monitor performance of fleet vehicles, mine external data and social media for consumer information, manage dealership vehicle inventory in sophisticated ways, and understand and manage its supply chain.
  3. Harvard physicist and computer scientist Dr. Alex Wissner-Gross theorizes that artificial intelligence emerges from the effort to surpass constraints and maximize future freedom of action. One implication of this theory of AI is that human efforts to “box” or control artificial intelligences would wind up accelerating AI capabilities and development.
  4. As China and Russia try to increase their global influence, Joseph Nye writes that they are having trouble with “soft power.”
  5. Happy birthday, Interwebs! Today is the 20th anniversary of CERN releasing the world wide web source code as royalty-free and open software.


Here are five indicators, observations or articles that caught the eye of FA futurists today.

Image: Matti Mattila, Flickr.

  1. In the wake of the Boston bombings, the website Reddit is providing a new example of the potential power — and perhaps potential abuses — of crowdsourced intelligence gathering, as users track down multiple views of people carrying specific backpacks in the crowds at the race.
  2. Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Mamet’s decision to self-publish his next book could signal that self-publishing is moving from unsigned and lesser known authors to established ones.
  3. Researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne announced this week that they had developed a new lithium-ion microbattery that is 2,000 times more powerful than competing batteries and charges nearly instantly. If scaled up for commercial production, it could mean even smaller electronic devices with far longer charge lives. A paper with technical details was published in the latest issue of Nature Communications.
  4. The U.S. Department of Education has approved financial aid for Southern New Hampshire University’s College For America. What makes this interesting is that CFA is the first Department of Education-approved curriculum that does not use credit hour to measure student achievement. Rather than require a student to put in a specific amount of time, the program allows students to learn at their own pace, testing them on their proficiency.
  5. Researchers uncover a flawed Excel formula in a cornerstone 2010 economic paper that is the foundation of current efforts to curb public debt levels and enact “austerity” policies. With the analysis corrected, the empirical link between high debt levels and low economic growth largely evaporates.


Image: GoXunuReviews, Flickr.

Amazon sent out a news release this morning announcing that sales of digital books for their Kindle digital book format/reader had eclipsed sales of printed books. All printed books, not just hardbacks. (That milestone was reached in July 2010.) This news about digital book sales edging printed sales is apparently a big deal as many of the people on my Twitter feed have sent around the link to the news release.

But what does it mean? There are those who decry the rise of the e-book, claiming it is the end of books. But this is not the case. It may be the winding down of printed books, but the healthy growth of e-book sales does not indicate books are going away. In fact, in the news release, Amazon states that 2011’s strong digital copy sales, along with growth in printed book sales, has “resulted in the fastest year-over-year growth rate for Amazon’s U.S. books business.” Clearly the book is not going away. Had there been mass communication tools 500 years ago, no doubt there would have been hue-and-cry over printed books edging out hand-copied versions. (“What are the monks to do?” “Is this the end of scribes?”) But books flourished because of the printing press, and they will continue to flourish as e-books.

Internet retailer Amazon announced today that it is starting a program that would allow library patrons to check out books using their Kindle. This sounds like a great idea. I am surprised no one has considered this before. Way to go, Amazon!

Image: GoXunuReviews

A couple of years ago some colleagues and I were talking about the cleverness of the Netflix model, and we wondered if there was any other product that could be rented/distributed via mail in the same way. One co-worker suggested how it would be great if we could rent books for free, and then return them when we were done. After the laughter died down, we explained to him that he had just invented the public library. But this was all pre-Kindle.

Here is my free idea for Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble and any public library:  Allow your books to be rented for e-readers. So how would this work? Libraries would purchase a number of copies of an e-book, and then a library patron with an e-reader could get a code for the digital copy of the book and download it from either the library system or an e-book seller. After two weeks, when the book was due, the library would cancel the code and the book would be removed from the e-reader. As Amazon demonstrated in 2009 with the 1984 kerfuffle, the ability to remotely wipe e-books exists.

But what about the lost sales to e-book sellers due to free downloading via the library? I am no expert in library and publishing economics, but I assume that if you’ve decided to check out a book from the library, you’ve already made the decision not to buy it. The free library system is predicated on the idea of one purchase, many readers—so retailers are not losing money, as it was never going to be spent in the first place.

There are some concerns about piracy, as digital media is relatively easy to pirate. A host of digital rights management schemes are available now to thwart illicit downloads. Also, Netflix seems to have managed this problem—even with its live streaming of movies—so it is not insurmountable.

To sweeten the pot for e-book retailers, perhaps the library would share a bit of demographic information about the e-borrowers, allowing retailers to build more effective advertising plans.

So there you go, libraries and retailers: Free idea. And on a personal note (and for full disclosure), as a Kindle owner, I look forward to seeing it reach fruition.

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