Some Of The Many Things We Are Interested In:

Free Alternatives for Texting!

Free alternatives may cut into text messaging profits

August 21, 2011|By Salvador Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times

Apple’s upcoming iMessage service, Facebook’s new Messenger app and other no-cost options could diminish a revenue stream for the wireless industry that totaled about $21 billion last year

Koshal Singh, left, checks Facebook on her iPhone while waiting in line.… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles Times)
Ben Chinn likes to text as much as the next guy — he just doesn’t like to pay for it.

Chinn, 37, sends most of his text messages free of charge with Google Voice and a smartphone application. He also pays $5 a month for up to 200 messages on his AT&T mobile phone plan.

“With everything with the mobile carriers, I feel I’m getting nickeled and dimed,” said Chinn, of San Francisco. “I resent paying so much for text messaging, and I feel that it’s not a reasonable price to pay for something that costs the carriers next to nothing.”

It’s customers like Chinn who are worrying the big telecommunication companies. Text messaging has been a huge profit center for AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile, but that money could trickle away as free alternatives gain popularity.

Facebook Inc., for example, recently launched a smartphone app called Messenger that enables users to communicate with anyone who is a Facebook friend or has a cellphone number. And this fall, Apple Inc. will roll out iMessage, enabling the millions of iPhone and iPad owners to send messages to one another over the Internet at no cost.

In addition to free apps, the growing popularity of smartphones — which can handle both email and texting apps — are dimming text messaging’s future as a profit center.

“There is a change coming, and it will have a serious impact on messaging traffic in mature markets, starting with the U.S.,” said John White, a business development director at Portio Research. “We see iMessage and Facebook messaging as the biggest players [and] this will start to impact right away.”

Juniper Research has predicted that global revenue for text messaging will peak this year and begin to drift down. And in a recent report, UBS Investment Research warned that “customers could elect not to pay for texting as smartphones and third-party applications become pervasive.”

Text messaging’s popularity exploded around 2005, driven by teenagers and young adults who adopted the format as an easy way to communicate on the go, similar to the instant messaging function on their computers.

And text messaging is still a big business, accounting for an estimated $21 billion in U.S. revenue for telecom companies last year and an estimated $23 billion this year, according to the Consumer Federation of America.

But growth in message traffic slowed for the first time to single digits — 8.7% — in the last half of last year compared with the previous six months, according to U.S. wireless trade group CTIA.

Typically, wireless carriers have charged separately for text messaging, multimedia messaging and data plans, which provide Internet access. Though they have offered unlimited plans for each category, carriers have been pulling back recently, limiting particularly how much a customer can use the Internet.

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Sci-fi Meets Future Tech

Intel recruits sci-fi writers to dream up future tech

Chip maker Intel has commissioned leading science fiction authors to pen short stories that imagine future uses for the firm’s technology.

The collection, called “The Tomorrow Project”, aims to capture the public’s imagination regarding the company’s current research.

Intel believes this can help anticipate consumer aspirations, and drive future adoption of its products.

The anthology has been made available online as a free download.

The Tomorrow Project is led by Intel futurist Brian David Johnson, who regards the scheme as an important way to assess future technology trends.

“When we design chips to go into your television, your computers, your phones – we need to do it about five or ten years in advance. We need to have an understanding of what people will want to do with those devices,” said Mr Johnson.

“What science fiction does is give us a way to think about the implications of the technologies that we’re building, for the people who will actually be using them.”

The concept is called “future casting” – and aims to drive future technology uses, rather than simply responding to market forces.

“If we can give people a vision of the future – and do it through science fiction – we can capture people’s imaginations,” said Mr Johnson.

The project features work from UK sci-fi author Ray Hammond, who took research in development at Intel’s labs and used it as the basis for “The Mercy Dash” – the story of a couple battling futuristic traffic technology in a race to save a mother’s life.

“I was more nervous approaching this than I have been with any of my full-length novels. I’ve never written short stories, so the form was new to me,” Mr Hammond told BBC News.

The author’s work has been made freely available for download from Intel’s site and Mr Hammond has been delighted by the reaction.

“I’ve had several hundred responses from people around the world who’ve read the story, and either want to read more of my books, or else ask specific questions on the content.”

The initiative suggests a cultural shift by the chip giant, which has had to adjust to sharp changes in the consumer tech landscape.

In previous decades, Intel was able to drive progress and profits through steady increments in processor speed. Yet in a post-PC world, firms like Apple have successfully used lifestyle innovations to frame future market appetites.

“Intel have owned the desktop and server market for a long time. As the world moves to mobile devices where they are not number one, what are they going to do?” said Mr Hammond.

The author believes narrative has an important role to play in future technology.

“Story telling is often under-appreciated in marketing and development. It can engender reactions you just don’t get if you show a bunch of slides. The best CEOs – like Apple’s Steve Jobs – are the most brilliant story tellers,” said Mr Hammond.

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Apple will Start Offering Built-in Alerts

Earthquake coming? There’s an app for that


Apple has included an early-warning service in the next version of its Japanese iPhones

Earthquake damage in Japan. Source:

No one knows better than the Japanese what a difference a few minutes — or even seconds — warning can mean when a major earthquake or tsunami is on its way. That’s why they have developed the world’s most sophisticated early warning system.

9to5Mac reports that the latest beta of iOS 5 — the new mobile operating system Apple (AAPL) is scheduled to deliver this fall — includes a toggle switch on Japanese iPhones that, when flipped on, will alert users whenever it’s time to take shelter.

GigaOm‘s Darrell Etherington points out that Japanese feature phones have been offering access to the same early warning service for several years. But he suggests that its appearance in iOS 5 beta may signal an initiative on Apple’s part to provide localized warning services in other parts of the world. Mexico has a similar earthquake warning system, for example, and California is working on one that’s expected to come online in 2013. Meanwhile, now that the iPhone’s creaky notification system has finally been rewritten, perhaps Apple will start offering different kinds of built-in alerts — wildfires in the American West, floods in the East, tornadoes in the MidWest, etc.

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What if it’s an iPad-only market, now and forever?

RIP, TouchPad. Can any non-iPad tablet survive – ever?

By Julianne Pepitone

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — In the pre-iPad world, skeptics predicted that consumers would have no need for tablets. Then Apple unleashed the iPad — and immediately sold millions of them.

OK, the critics acquiesced, there’s a tablet market after all. Apple’s rivals raced to get into the hot new space. Most of those devices flopped critically and commercially, culminating in HP (HPQ, Fortune 500)’s move last week to kill off its 49-day-old TouchPad tablet.

The assumption all along has been that others will eventually get the hang of tablets, making the field diverse and fiercely competitive. The model here is the iPhone: Apple mastered it first and still holds a lucrative slice of the smartphone market, but lots of vendors have carved off a piece for themselves.

But here’s another scenario: What if the tablet market never materializes? What if it’s an iPad-only market, now and forever?

There’s precedent for that too, as wild as it sounds. It’s what happened with the iPod.

When Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500) unveiled its revolutionary music player in 2001, it blew away the competition. Others got to the market years earlier, but Apple’s slick design and vast storage capacity was unmatchable. Priced at a fairly steep $399, the iPod sold 125,000 units in its first two months on the market.

Rivals immediately moved to copy Apple’s playbook. Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500), Sony (SNE) and scores of smaller companies threw tons of R&D and marketing money at building a better iPod — and failed. No one else ever got a meaningful toehold. Ten years after its debut, Apple’s iPod line still holds at least 65% of the U.S. market, according to the latest estimates from IDC’s Tom Mainelli, the firm’s research director for mobile connected devices.

If tablets follow that model, you end up with a field where “the iPad dominates indefinitely and every competitor squabbles over one tiny piece of the market-share pie,” gadget columnist Harry McCracken wrote the day the TouchPad died.

At the start of this year, more than 100 non-iPad tablets were on sale or in the works. But now the field is littered with outright failures, devices that never came to be — and, at best, a few very mild successes.

“The HP TouchPad is the sharpest example of the huge stumbles in the market,” says Rhoda Alexander, director of monitor research at IHS iSuppli. “It was abrupt, and definitely a shocker, but struggles are going on all over.”

The Apple edge: “So far most other tablets are offering a hardware solution or a software solution, but not both,” Alexander says. “Even if each one is good on its own, it takes work to put them together. Apple did that beautifully.”

That approach helped Apple cannonball into the media-player market.

“It was elegant, it was fun to use, and they were very careful about what they put in and what they left out,” Mainelli says of the iPod. “So while there were plenty of MP3 players in the market that were arguably ‘better’ than the iPod, none were easier to use, and none had the Apple cache.”

That’s what’s happening with tablet market, says Ken Dulaney, Gartner’s vice president of mobility.

“When it really comes down to it, the tablet market had been around 20 years and hadn’t yet sold a million units,” he says. “Then the iPad comes in and changes everything.”

That happened with the iPhone, too — Apple essentially invented the modern smartphone. But in that field, rivals were able to catch up.

So what makes the phone market different than the music-player market? And which one better foreshadows the tablet field?

Daring Fireball blogger John Gruber, a veteran Apple observer, thinks signs point to the latter.

“Most people today still buy phones the same way they did in 2006: they go to their local mobile carrier store and buy whatever the sales staff there convinces them to buy. Over 100 million times, that’s been an Android phone,” he wrote recently. “[But] the tablet market doesn’t today look anything like the smartphone market ever did. The iPad didn’t enter the tablet market. It created the tablet market.”

PC sales continue slump amid iPad takeover

Apple has sold more than 28 million iPads — and for many tablet buyers, it’s still the only game in town. About 93% of current tablet users are iPad owners, and a whopping 94% of potential buyers are looking at the iPad, according to a report this month from R.W. Baird. Second place for potential buyers, with a distant 10%, is the now-dead TouchPad.

IDC’s Mainelli cites two key reasons for Apple’s iPod dominance: Its design superiority and iTunes. By making it cheap, convenient and easy to get music, Apple created an entire gadget-and-content ecosystem its rivals couldn’t match.

The App Store faces more obstacles — especially if Apple keeps alienating major content publishers by demanding a big cut of their in-app sales — but it’s already stocked with an unmatched software lineup.

“Apple has built an entire ecosystem to support and enrich the iPad for both customers and developers,” says Instapaper creator Marco Arment. “A successful mass-market iPad competitor needs to be so good that people will ignore all of that, buy it in large quantities, and let it develop its own entire ecosystem.”

Who could challenge Apple: There’s a dark horse in the tablet race: Amazon (AMZN, Fortune 500).

The e-commerce Goliath is reportedly working on a tablet expected to debut this fall.

“Amazon could make tons of money selling you the services, which means they can afford to sell you a tablet at cost,” Mainelli says.

The “give ’em the razor, make money on the blades” business model could be the key to beating the iPad: undercutting Apple on price.

“The conventional wisdom is if you can buy No. 1, the iPad, for the same price, then why would you buy anything else?” Mainelli says. “People will pay more for Apple devices and the Apple experience, period. So to beat them, you’ve got to come in significantly cheaper.”

But until someone finds that secret sauce, analysts are dialing back their forecasts about the tablet market’s diversity. Earlier this year, IHS iSuppli predicted that Apple’s tablet market share would drop below 50% in late 2012. Now, the firm thinks that won’t happen until 2014.

“This isn’t the type of thing where the competition can sit back and say, ‘we’re not going to play,'” says IHS iSuppli’s Alexander. “An initial failure doesn’t necessarily mean long-term failure.”

“Eventually, it will be more than an Apple market,” agrees IDC’s Mainelli. “What’s less clear is when the competitors will start to come in.”

But the real question may not be “when” a real rival will emerge. It’s “if.”

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Science of Smiles

Our Social Nature: The Surprising Science of Smiles

By Danielle Venton

All hail the powerful smile. The right smile, at the right time, wins friends and calms enemies. The smile held for too long, not long enough, flashed too intensively or too dimly, arouses suspicion, fear or anger.

Far from being a straightforward show of joy, the language of smiles is filled with subtlety: a meld of our inner state, surroundings, social training, conscious and unconscious.

The new book Lip Service: Smiles in Life, Death, Trust, Lies, Work, Memory, Sex, and Politics, published August 8, explores the nuances and effects of an expression we use often, but rarely think about. spoke with author, Marianne LaFrance, an experimental psychologist at Yale University, about why we smile, how we do it, and the rise of the emoticon. Are we able to intuitively tell when someone is faking a smile?

Marianne LaFrance: Yes, often, but not always. When experimental studies are done in which fake and apparently spontaneous smiles are shown in pictures or brief videos, to both adults and kids, and the only thing they have to do is mark a smile as genuine or not, people are pretty good at telling the difference.

On the other hand, in more complicated real-world settings most people are not very good. Why the difference?

LaFrance: In many interactions we’re not paying very close attention. Details that we might catch as not exactly right if we paid attention, we miss because we’re not looking. Also there are a lot of theories about what a real smile looks like. Some of those are patently wrong.

People think they can tell by looking at what the overall face looks like, but in fact there is one muscle [that shows sincerity]. It’s a muscle, called the obicularis occuli, that encircles the eye socket. Most people don’t pay very close attention to and it’s very hard to deliberately adopt. So when people genuinely smile, in a true burst of positive emotion, not only to the corners of the mouth, controlled by the zygomaticus major, but this muscle around the eye also contracts. This causes the crows feet wrinkles that fan out from the outer corners of the eyes and its also responsible for folds in the upper eyelid. Most people can’t do that deliberately. What about actors and con men?

LaFrance: The muscle doesn’t seem to be under voluntary control normally, but with training and practice, people can learn to use it, some better than others. And of course your garden variety psychopath or Machiavellian personality tends to be better at it. A characteristic of con men is that they somehow manage to exude a positive, good feeling to get themselves into your good graces, only to exploit it. Are many muscles involved in smiling?

LaFrance: Two, the obicularis occuli and zygomaticus major, are the primary muscles involved in the so-called genuine smile. But the so-called mouth smile can co-occur with a number of other muscles on the face at the same time. So the mouth may be smiling but the brows could be showing anger, the eyes could be showing surprise or fear, the upper lip could be showing contempt, the nose could be showing some disgust. So the smile is interesting to those of us who study it because it’s not just one thing. It’s multiple and complicated.

Even the temporal pattern is important. Genuine smiles tend to come on the face relatively languidly and go off the face in the same kind of way. Fake smiles often seem to snap on the face and snap off. Humans have always been captivated by smiles. When did smile science get its real start?

LaFrance: In the late 1800s Charles Darwin published his famous book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. He devoted some time to smiling, but was more interested in other facial expressions. His colleague across the channel, Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne, was doing experiments where he would zap single muscles on the face with electricity and then look at the changes. His primary distinction was between smiles that came from the soul, non-deliberate smiles, and the ones put there consciously. That’s why people who study smiles call the spontaneous smile the Duchenne smile.

Left, non-Duchenne or social smile; right, Duchenne or genuine smile. Image: Megan Mangum. What does a person’s tendency to smile tell us about them?

LaFrance: Some people are inclined to smile more, and that tends to indicate they are a more upbeat personality. But it’s not a perfect correlation. Some people don’t smile often and are quite content. Others smile a lot of the time, but it is out of anxiety.

Most smiling is social. There are a kazillion situations that, as we become socialized, we learn that many situations call for a smile. Kids learn early on — girls learn much faster than boys — that it is good to fake a smile in some circumstances. Imagine you are given a tacky or disappointing gift; it is a mature behavior to smile and thank the person, because that is the socially appropriate thing to do.

When people are by themselves, believing they are not being observed, there isn’t a lot of smiling. We might think that if we’re reading a book by ourselves and we come across a funny passage we’d break into a smile, but it’s actually pretty rare. But if that same passage is being read to us, or other people are in the room, we’re more likely to smile. Are there differences in the way males and females smile?

LaFrance: On average girls and women smile more. This appears to be a function of two things. Boys are encouraged not to smile very much. Expressivity is taken by some as sign of emotionality, of femininity, something many men, wouldn’t be caught dead being associated with.

Now women, even when they are not feeling much, are strongly encouraged to look and sound as though they are. Spend some time around young teenage girls and you hear a lot of, “Ooh! Oh, that’s wonderful! Love it! That’s fabulous! Fabulous!” Women who are not very expressive are regarded with some suspicion. They seem cold, withholding, depressed. Acquiring the rules of how expressive one should be with their face is a very socialized process. Are there differences in the way men and women interpret smiles?

LaFrance: Yes, in general women are more accurate than men in detecting what is really going on with someone by looking at their face and listening to their voice. Women are more likely to tell the difference between a felt and a fake smile.

But there’s another big difference between the perception of smiles. When a woman smiles, men tend to see it as flirtatiousness, even when it has nothing to do with flirtatiousness. Whereas when a woman sees a smile on anybody’s face, man or another woman, she is much more likely to make differentiated judgments and see it as a happy, nervous, embarrassed or fake smile. Smiles have two ways of getting to our faces, a voluntary and an involuntary way. Why is that?

LaFrance: We don’t really know. Some things we do intentionally, other things spontaneously. Some facial expressions can probably be taken at face value. However, we are also great con artists. It makes evolutionary sense to show expressions that we don’t always feel, and not to show expressions that we do feel. If we always showed exactly what we felt then others could potentially see through to our souls and take advantage of us. But we also occasionally reveal our emotions spontaneously and genuinely, that keeps us on our toes. Do animals smile?

LaFrance: People often ask me if dogs smile and I have to answer, not exactly endearingly, that dogs don’t smile. Now sometimes it looks like the outer corners of their mouth go up, and it looks like a human smile so it’s interpreted as one. But if smiles are meant to be a display of positive emotion, or a gesture of social recognition, then no. Now, non-human primates do show facial expressions, similar to what we call a smile, that are associated with greetings and camaraderie. Some medical conditions erase a person’s ability to smile. What do they go through when that happens?

LaFrance: It can be just traumatic. Smiling is so central to our feeling of comfort in the world that, when you’re unable to smile, we are made uncomfortable by that. Or, if you’re with someone who adopts an impassive persona and doesn’t smile, it can be really unnerving.

Recently a woman whose face and eyes had been torn off by a 200-pound chimpanzee had a face transplant. Doctors are now reporting that the transplant seems to be taking hold, because she is able to smell and smile. This woman will be blind for the rest of her life, but it’s remarkable that she’s able to smile. It’ll be important for her life. What is it about unsmiling people that is unnerving?

LaFrance: People convey by their faces that they acknowledge us, that we’re alive, that we matter, that we are not just objects to be dispensed with. Why can smiles mean such different things in different cultures?

LaFrance: We acquire ways of knowing who is us and who is them. There have been fascinating studies where Australians and Americans were shown a bunch of face shots of other Australians and Americans. Their task was to identify which nationality, Australian or American, the person was. Shown neutral expressions, accuracy was no better than chance. But shown smiles, they were very good at guessing a person’s nationality. Subtle difference in a person’s smile are detectable, even if we can’t describe why.

Now there are also vast cross-cultural differences in the rules for smiling. Who is it OK to smile at, who not? For how long? For example, often when New Englanders go to the South, they wonder why Southerners are smiling all the time. Sometimes they feel everyone is charming. Sometimes the difference is met with dismay.

Rarely do we think, “Isn’t it interesting that another culture has different smiling rules?” We view them as being a different type of person. Now, at home, judgments based on a person’s smiling habits might be warranted. But when you’re talking about cross-cultural boundaries, those judgments can be really off-base. Did you come across anything surprising while researching this book?

LaFrance: I found that in obituaries people often, more than any other attribute, mentioned their loved one’s smile. Why is it that, after a person is dead, they are described as someone with a smile? It is one more indicator that smiling is a way we connect with other people, in a way that can be easy to underestimate, but in fact I don’t think its importance can be underestimated. What do you think about emoticons?

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Social Entrepreneurship: Solor Light bulbs

Bringing solar light bulbs to the world

By Jim Spellman, CNN

Denver (CNN) — It started with such a simple concept: A solar light bulb that charges up during the day and lights the night when the sun sets.

Inventor Steve Katsaros perfected his design in June 2010, and four days later he had a patent in hand.

He knew it was a good product, but he didn’t know what to do with it.

“It wasn’t until after we created it that we asked ourselves, ‘How do we market this,'” Katsaros says. “And we learned that the largest market was the developing world.”

As Katsaros began researching markets in developing countries, he began to realize that his solar light bulb could potentially make a huge impact on the 1.4 billion people around the world who don’t have access to an electrical grid.

Many use fuel lamps that burn kerosene, which is costly, dirty and can also be unhealthy.

He dubbed his company Nokero — short for “No Kerosene” — and set out to get his bulbs into as many hands a possible in the developing world.

First, Katsaros had to answer a key question that would determine how he would have the strongest impact: should his company be nonprofit, or for-profit?

Katsaros found inspiration from the 2008 book by Paul Polak, “Out of Poverty.”

Communities that do not have access to electricity could benefit from Katsaros' solar light bulbs.
Communities that do not have access to electricity could benefit from Katsaros’ solar light bulbs.

Polak, who has worked in developing nations for 30 years, believes that the charity model of aid used by nonprofit organizations doesn’t work — despite its good intentions.

CEO Richard Branson: Treat charity like a business Video

The best way to help people, according to Polak, is to treat them as consumers. If you can sell to them, he says, you can help them.

“In the beginning I was a nut case and nobody paid attention,” Polak says. “The consensus was 30 years ago that this is what caused poverty, and to be involved in business was outrageous and evil.”

Today, that is starting to change, he says. But that doesn’t mean that nongovernmental organizations have rolled out the red carpet for Polak’s ideas.

“Many NGOs say it’s making money on the back of the poor, but I love to make money on the back of the poor,” Polak says.

“You can feel really good about yourself giving stuff away … but if you are going to sell things to people, you need to have respect for them because no one is going to buy something if you have contempt for them.”

He says market forces will ensure that the right products get into the marketplace and ultimately lead to empowering people in developing countries to be better able to fend for themselves.

“If you have a village that’s used to the dole, it’s very hard to get them off of the dole,” Polak says. “We have to face the fact that conventional development aid has failed.

“It just doesn’t work.”

After interviewing more than 3,000 families who live on $3 a day or less, Polak concluded that they know best how to care for their families.

They will respond to a free market that presents them with products that will fit their needs, he says.

“They are stubborn creative survival entrepreneurs,” Polak says. “They make life and death decisions about how to spend their meager income. They are used to investing their money very wisely.”

In 1981 he founded International Development Enterprises. Though the company itself is a nonprofit, it uses a model called “social entrepreneurship,” which utilizes capitalist principles to assist people in the developing world.

Social entrepreneurship surges on U.S. college campuses

So often, he says, large aid organizations simply don’t understand what people need.

Katsaros sells "business in a box" kits that entrepreneurs in Kenya and Tanzania can sell to villages at a profit.
Katsaros sells “business in a box” kits that entrepreneurs in Kenya and Tanzania can sell to villages at a profit.

Polack points to the example of a product called the Play Pump. It seems like a great idea: A children’s merry-go-round operates as a water pump. As children play on it, it pumps water into a holding tank.

In 2006, the United States invested more than $16 million in a massive effort to install Play Pumps across sub-Saharan Africa. Four years later, 4,000 Play Pumps had been installed.

But according to a UNICEF report the Play Pumps haven’t worked as promised.

At $14,000 each they are expensive. And the children grew bored of the hard work of “playing” on the merry-go-rounds, forcing women in the village to operate the pumps. In addition, the pumps proved to be unreliable, and when they break they require expert technicians to repair them, according to UNICEF.

Polak says this is exactly the wrong approach because the people living in the villages were not given an opportunity to choose whether these pumps would work in their communities.

“They’re not going to spend their money on it if it doesn’t make sense,” Polak says. “The problem with a lot of these things using the charity model is that they get these things foisted on them.”

Polak’s nonprofit markets a pump of its own, which costs about $8 to make and sells for $25. Polak says a small family farmer who buys a pump can increase his annual income by $100.

He says they have sold 1.5 million in Bangladesh alone and have created thousands of jobs in turn.

“We have 3,000 (villages) dealers making an income and 3,000 well drillers making an income, and 75 workshops making the pumps making an income,” Polak says.

Bangladesh’s ‘banker to the poor’ defends strategy

And that is one of the key tenets of the social entrepreneurship model. It helps create more jobs and a network of dealers and distributors that can then be utilized to sell more products and ultimitely build a more robust economy in developing countries.

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Dr. Kaku’s: Science Fiction to Science Fact

By Helena Merriman
BBC World Service

Dr Michio Kaku

Renowned physicist Dr Michio Kaku says that the world of science fiction may be closer to reality than fantasy.

So if you thought that invisibility cloaks, time travel and teleportation were for the silver screen only, think again.

Dr Kaku is a theoretical physicist and the co-founder of string field theory, a branch of string theory, often referred to as “the theory of everything”.

A lot of the predictions made by science fiction writers have been replaced by the march of science
Dr Michio Kaku

In his recent published book, Physics of the Impossible, he considers the phenomena of science fiction, including time travel and invisibility.

He was shocked to find that almost all of them were consistent with the known laws of physics.

According to Dr Kaku, most of what we see on the silver screen is possible – it is just a question of time.

“A lot of the predictions made by science fiction writers have been replaced by the march of science,” he told BBC World Service.

Invisibility has long been a hallmark of science fiction or fantasy.

Star Trek spacecraft use invisibility shields, and Harry Potter would have struggled in his battle against Lord Voldemort without his invisibility cloak.

But could invisibility really be future science fact rather than science fiction?

Fiction to fact

Physics optics books used to teach that invisibility was impossible. But Dr Kaku says this is wrong; it is possible.

But he concedes that there are currently technical obstacles with the Harry Potter invisibility cloak that may hold it back from wide uptake.

For example, to be able to see out of the cloak, he says, you would need to drill two holes.

But then you would see a pair of disembodied eyes floating in mid-air, which might ruin the look. Or lack of a look.

And what about teleportation?

Stupid cockroaches are smarter than our robots
Dr Michio Kaku

Dr Kaku points out, this has already been done on an atomic scale.

The world record for teleportation is 600m.

Properties of photons – particles of light – have already been teleported across the River Danube and he predicts that we will be teleporting molecules within the decade, and eventually to the moon.

But he stresses that this is only on the atomic scale – no Captain Kirks have been beamed up.

“Remember Captain Kirk consists of 50 trillion cells, so a human being will take many centuries.”

But Star Trek takes place in the 23rd Century. “That’s enough time for us to teleport a human,” he says.

So far, the silver screen has been quite accurate, except when it comes to robots, says Dr Kaku.

In fact, he says Hollywood has misled us into thinking that smart robots are just around the corner.

Fans of the emotional Sonny from I-Robot, or the depressed and bored Marvin from The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, may be disappointed to hear that they are more likely to find a cockroach composing a symphony or writing a poem than a robot.

“Stupid cockroaches are smarter than our robots,” says Dr Kaku.

“Robots are nothing but tape-recorders, pre-scripted moves ahead of time.

“Digital computers have a hard time learning and that’s the fundamental problem. They don’t learn new skills.”

Logic problem

And finally, what about time travel, a concept which has spawned hundreds of films, novels and plays after HG Wells first conjured the world of time machines and fourth dimensions in 1895.

“Time travel is definitely on the table, and in principle it may be possible to build a time machine,” Dr Kaku says.

“So, if one day somebody knocks on your door and claims to be your great-great-great-grand-daughter, don’t slam the door.”

Dr Who with tardis and robot dog

There is a logical problem though with time travel, one that offers rich pickings for films and books.

It is known as the “grandfather paradox” and asks what would happen if a time traveller were to kill their grandfather and therefore prevent themselves from being born.

If the time traveller was not born, how would they travel back in time?

Dr Kaku has a solution.

While he agrees with Einstein that time is a river, he says we now realise that the river of time can have whirlpools and fork into two rivers.

In one of these forks, in another parallel universe, a different history can exist, but the past can never be altered.

“You cannot alter your own past. You cannot go back in time and kill your own parents before you were born. Your timeline is intact.”

While these inventions may be scientifically possible, Dr Kaku laments that not enough young people are being trained to become scientists of the future.

But he warns against defeatism.

“It’s always dangerous to say the word impossible,” he muses.

“The word impossible is a challenge to the physicist.”

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