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6 Signs That Reality is Catching Up with Science-Fiction

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By Toussaint Egan, Aurora University

Albert Einstein once said, “I never worry about the future, it comes soon enough.” He was right—it’s just taken us a bit longer to get there than we expected.

Science-fiction is a genre that is synonymous with the idea of futurecasting—taking contemporary technology and ideas and extrapolating them into a not so distant future to speculate on the what-if's of their most evolutionary extreme conclusions. But what happens when the real world catches up with our imagination?

As the legal, ethical, and societal ramifications of these emergent ideas and technologies become more and more plausible and apparent, the line separating speculative fantasy and our everyday reality has begun to blur in increasingly uncanny ways. These are only six signs that our present reality is becoming just as strange, if not stranger than science-fiction.

1. Life-extension research

Extending the longevity and quality of life has been a guiding force not only for modern medicine but a cornerstone of speculative fiction. Anti-aging proponents like Aubrey De Grey argue that "natural death" is not an inevitability but rather a undiagnosed affliction, and that in approximately 20 to 30 years time, the problem of aging as we know it now will be fundamentally "solved" through advances like gene therapy and antibiotics.

"The phrase 'natural causes' is a very strange one really," De Grey said in an interview with Big Think. "Ultimately what it means is someone who dies of natural causes, they die of aging in a way that has not been given an additional name ... so really it’s just a matter of terminology the difference between dying of natural causes and dying of some other specifically named thing that doesn't really often affect young adults."

Anti-aging is far from a fringe technology, and De Grey is certainty not alone in his estimations. Futurists like Ray Kurzweil proselytize the so-called "Death of Death" within the next quarter-century, and even major tech executives like Google's Larry Page have joined the cause to "radically extend the human life-span." How these technologies emerge within our lifetime, how purposefully we act in creating new system to counteract the congestion of space and consumption of resources resulting from these technologies, will change not only our contemporary society but the future of generations to come.

2. Mainstream 3D printing

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We may not have the molecular replicator from Star Trek or the the universal constructor from Deus Ex, but 3D printers are becoming a more present reality bridging the gap between commercial commodities and DIY craftsmanship. The machines are being used to construct a wide range of things, including clothingfootwearartificial organsarchitecturetoysvinyl recordsminiature replicasart installations, and even pizza! That's not even mentioning the ways in which creators can mold their creations in real-time, like L’Artisan Electronique's insanely cool virtual pottery wheel. And when you have a Stanford professor ruminating on the future legal ramifications of 3D printing licenses and manufacturing liability, you know it's time to sit up and pay attention. 

3. Modern Metropolises and Emerging Populations

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When Joan Clos, Executive Director of the UN said that "the global population will increase from 7 billion to 9 billion [and] the urban population will grow between 2.5 billion and 3 billion people by the year 2050," he predicted the highest rate of urbanization in human history. Professor Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute shares these predictions, characterizing cities as, "...crucibles of civilization [...] urbanization has been expanding at an exponential rate in the last 200 years so that by the second part of this century, the planet will be completely dominated by cities." 

Author Annalee Newitz expands on West's claims in her book, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember, wherein she talks about the lifespan and extinction cycles of species and human cities and how they can be made "Death-proof":

Cities are not static objects to be feared or admired, but are instead a living process that residents are changing all the time. Given how much bigger and more common cities are likely to become over the next century, we’ll need to change them even further. Cities might become biological entities, walls hung with curtains of algae that glow at night and sequester carbon, and floors made from tweaked cellular material that strengthens like bones as we walk on it.

Regardless of how modern cities change throughout the next century, one trait shared between all of them will remain constant. And that trait is, to quote West, "that they are networks, and the most important network of cities is you. Cities are just a physical manifestation of your interactions, our interactions, and the clustering and grouping of individuals."

4. Wide-spread Commercial Robotics

We may not have uncanny artificial companions of Steven Spielberg's A.I. just yet, but make no mistake, the robot Renaissance is nearly upon us. Probably the most famous example of a real-life robotic companion is Honda's ASIMO project. ASIMO, or "Advanced Step in Innovative MObility," is a humanoid robot designed to function as a personal assistant and nursing aide. ASIMO has gone through several iterations since its debut in 1986; Honda has stated a projected timeline of at least 15 years before introduced for mass production.

But the future of robotics doesn't lie solely in Japan. Boston Dynamics, a DARPA-funded robotics corporation recently acquired by Google, is responsible for some of the most technically impressive—and frankly, terrifying—examples of cutting-edge robotics. Models like PETMAN and ATLAS are considered some of the most technologically-advanced automatons on the planet, and I dare anyone to look at a video of Big Dog running and not see visions of Metal Gear. 

That's not to mention the recent announcement of Amazon's Prime Air delivery system, which uses automated air-drones for short-range delivery of packages to customer's houses. The future keeps on getting weirder and weirder.

5. The Internet and Global Communications

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The Internet has come to define and shape our modern world in profoundly meaningful ways that we are only now beginning to fathom. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter have become the main purveyors of cultural currency as the debate regarding the personal privacy of private citizens and our impulse to "overshare" rages on. We speak in an entirely different language than we did just a decade ago; a language of emoticons, abbreviations and aphorisms.

Real-time and asynchronous communication through text and  video-chat has allowed the human race to grow as an interconnected global community. And with initiatives like Google's Project Loon designed to connect people in rural and remote areas and bring people back online after disasters, the scope of the Internet shows no sign of shrinking. Motoko Kusanagi said it best, "The net is vast and infinite..."

6. Biotechnology and Human Augmentation

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In 2009, theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson famously speculated that, "in the future… a new generation of artists will be writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses." However whimsically optimistic that might sound on first reading, in reality Dyson may in fact be more right than even he imagined.

The real-life experimentation of genetically-modified pigs as incubators for "bioartifical" human organs in the early 2000s has since proliferated through such popular science-fiction works as Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam series, the anime series Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex, and Shane Carruth's filmUpstream Color. Scientists across the globe are racing to hone the creation of replacement organs extrapolated from the genetic tissue of their human counterparts. Biotech is on the rise, not to mention the commercial and medical potentialities of human-mechanical augmentation.

Modern prosthetics are becoming increasingly more complicated, ornate and sophisticated, mirroring the 20-seconds-into-the-future aesthetics of Deus Ex: Human Revolution and the high-powered exosuits of The Forever War. "We won't wake up with cyborg overlords. It will bleed out from the medical field [like] DARPA's exoskeleton to help wounded veterans," augmentation enthusiast Christian "Quaddi" Dameff said in an interview with Network World. "Human augmentation is no longer constrained to the world of speculative fiction [...] bio-mechanical interfaces are an exploding area of active research, development, and implementation. And they're here to stay."

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

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To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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