Technology makes our lives better. You're taking a MOOC class, and have your appointments organized on your computer. You watch wepisodes on your internet-capable high-definition television. You pay your bills electronically and save time and money. That's fine and dandy, until someone takes out the electronic banking system and the machines take over the planet.
Sounds crazy? Perhaps. None of the gadgets and innovations we included in our list of 10 scary technologies is likely to rain death and destruction on our little planet, though that doesn't prevent people from being unnerved by them. Read on to find out what weirdness may await in the future.
Hearing Voices at the Store
Imagine that you walk into your friendly neighborhood big box store and instead of being greeted by a smiling retiree, you hear whispered voices prompting you to buy things. You spin around to see who's speaking, but there's no one there and none of the other shoppers seem alarmed. Have you finally gone nuts? No, but the ]advertising industry has.
A company called Holosonics has developed a technology called the Audio Spotlight system, which uses tiny speakers to focus sound into a very narrow beam. Ultrasonic frequencies are too high for the human ear to hear, but as the sound travels from the Audio Spotlight system's speakers, air distorts the sound and makes it audible. It's perfect for in-store advertising, but you'd have to be standing in the right place to hear it.
When the human genome was fully mapped in 2003, researchers around the globe began to dissect the genome's 3 billion-plus base pairs for the root causes of diseases like Alzheimer's and common cancers. But that was only the beginning. The real dream of biotechnology is not only to understand how our DNA expresses itself, but also to "write" new DNA that heals disease and repairs bodies from the inside out. J. Craig Venter, the bio-entrepreneur whose company helped map the genome, reached a new milestone in 2010 when he built the world's first synthetic, self-replicating chromosome [source: Hessel]. He loaded some homemade synthetic DNA into a bacterial cell and watched it grow and divide according to computer-generated As, Ts, Gs and Cs. By his own reckoning, he had created "life."
In the happy scenario, biologists of the near future will figure out how to program viruses and bacteria to deliver custom-made cures that shrink cancerous tumors or reverse the tide of dementia. In the super scary scenario, bioterrorists engineer deadly superbugs that target us at a genetic level. In a 2012 article, The Atlantic imagined a technologically plausible scheme in which the president of the United States is assassinated by a highly contagious cold designed to target a weak link in his specific genetic code [source: Hessel]. To keep your DNA out of enemy hands, it's best not to leave the house without a hairnet and rubber gloves.
Imagine a war fought completely by computer. No, we're not talking about a scene out of the movie "WarGames," we're talking an all-out attack on a nation's electronic infrastructure. What's that, you may ask? Those are the systems that control emergency response services, banks and other electronic commerce, the systems that run the electrical grid, water and fuel pipeline controls, and oh, yeah: defense weaponry. A well-executed attack could cause serious disruption and open the populace up to physical threats.
In 2013, FBI Director James Comey predicted that cyberattacks would soon overtake traditional international terrorism as the greatest threat to homeland security [source: Johnson]. In 2008,Georgia suspected Russia of denial-of-service attacks (which Russia denied) [source: Markoff]. In 2013, South Korea accused North Korea of cyberttacks. Hackers have taken on the Pentagon, and some suspect terrorist organizations of training their operatives to launch computer assaults. So how do you defend against a cyberattack? Educating people about computer viruses and Trojan horses will help, and using updated antivirus software is also important.
Cyberattacks actually might be useful tools against machines that have learned to think for themselves and chosen to eliminate humanity. It's the stuff of science fiction, but why do some people believe this could happen? Learn more on the next page.
The Technological Singularity
Artificial intelligence (AI) has come a long way since computers first made the scene. Yet we're not at the edge of a dystopian society in which the machines run amok and humankind fights for its survival. At least, not yet.
In 1993, Vernor Vinge, a math professor at San Diego State University, proposed what he called the singularity -- a time at which computer networks may become self-aware through advanced AI, and interfaces between people and computers help humankind evolve. Biological advancements may become so sophisticated that doctors can even engineer human intelligence. There is a possibility, however, that AI might allow machines to take over the world. There's no guarantee that such a scenario will really happen, and technological limitations may prevent it. Still, the idea that machines might someday decide we're irrelevant and arrange for our destruction is more than a little creepy.
Google Glass, the high-tech specs with a built-in camera and pop-up display, turns the idea of Big Brother on its head. Maybe the surveillance menace of the future won't be a fascist regime with spy cameras on every corner, but rather an army of geeks recording every waking moment of their lives with a nod of the head and the wink of an eye.
Aside from the inherent dorkiness of Glass, privacy is the biggest concern with the search giant's latest foray into world domination. What's to stop a Glasshead from turning on his camera in the subway, the doctor's office or the gym locker room? Several U.S. casinos, bars and movie theaters have already banned Glass [source: Stern]. Google says that Glass isn't that creepy. For example, a small light indicates when video is being recorded and Glass wearers have to look at a subject and wink to take a picture. Yeah, that's not creepy at all.
Another scary prospect is the combination of Glass, social media and facial recognition technology. Some app developers are excited about the prospect of a Glass app that can recognize a stranger's face and pull up information about the person scoured from their Facebook and LinkedIn pages [source: Bloomberg View]. While Google rejects the idea of facial recognition on Glass, the company has patented eye-tracking technology that would record what ads you look at in the real world and charge fees to advertisers on a "pay-per-gaze" basis [source: Rieland].
While we're on the subject of scary surveillance, let's take to the skies.
A CIA operator in Virginia can fly a near-silent Predator drone through the night sky of Pakistan, locate his target on a video screen and rain down Hellfire missiles from the comfort of his cubicle [source: Mayer]. While counterterrorism officials and the White House defend unmanned drones as a "cleaner" alternative to military action, the use of drones raises important questions about government-sanctioned assassination and the inevitable deaths of innocent civilians.
As scary as military drones are, people are truly creeped out by the prospect of domestic spy drones. In 2012, the U.S. Congress passed a bill allowing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to draw up rules for the use of commercial and police drones in U.S. airspace [source: Smithson]. And New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg commented that the presence of drones hovering over American cities was "inevitable" [source: Haq]. Law enforcement is buzzed over the idea of trailing suspects from the skies, but privacy advocates worry that it's a small step from targeted surveillance to indiscriminate 24/7 spying on everyone [source: Lowy].
For a totally different kind of creepy, let's look at the desktop technology that promises to revolutionize manufacturing if it doesn't get outlawed first.
The MakerBot Replicator 2 offers the remarkable ability to print out a 3-D plastic model of just about anything you can imagine: a child's toy, a gear for a wind turbine, or a perfectly rendered model of your own butt. Desktop 3-D printing is undoubtedly a great leap forward for small-scale manufacturing, but it's also a potential boon for thieves and low-budget terrorists.
In 2011, an enterprising gang of crooks used a 3-D printer to replicate the plastic front of an ATM terminal. By placing their fake terminal on top of a real cash machine, they were able to skim unsuspecting victims' ATM cards and steal more than $400,000 from their accounts [source: Krebs].
But the real scary prospect is terrorists or fringe groups using 3-D printers to build guns, bombs and other weapons with nothing more than downloadable files. In 2013, a University of Texas law student Cody Wilson announced the creation of the Liberator, a fully functional .380 caliber handgun made entirely on a 3-D printer. The fact that it was plastic raised the fright factor, since it could conceivably elude metal detectors [source: Greenberg]. Wilson summed up the threat nicely to Forbes magazine: "Anywhere there's a computer and an Internet connection, there would be the promise of a gun."
Thanks, Cody! While we're on the topic of really great ideas with potentially horrible consequences, let's talk driverless cars.
Worldwide, roughly 1.3 million people are killed in car accidents each year [source: Khazan]. And then there's the evil of traffic itself; the American commuter is trapped in his or her car for an average of 38 hours each year [source: Werbach]. That's a full week of lost productivity!
Enter the Google self-driving car, an autonomous vehicle that promises to steer clear of accidents and keep traffic flowing smoothly via algorithm. Powered by Google Chauffeur software, the car uses GPS and a rooftop scanner to stay on course and respond to nearby vehicles. As of 2013, the car was still in its beta testing phase, but dozens of robotic cars were already on the road in California and Nevada.
One of the biggest concerns about driverless cars isn't a software glitch, but the awkward transition from robot mode to human mode. The soothing voice of Google Chauffeur alerts its human driver of upcoming situations that require hands-on control, like a tricky merge or a tollbooth [source: Fisher]. But Google engineers are still working out how much warning time is needed before the hand-off, or what to do if the driver has done something understandably human like doze off [source: Bosker]. No one wants to wake up behind the wheel of an SUV barreling down on a tollbooth at 65 mph (105 kph). And even fewer people want to be in that tollbooth.
The most important engineering innovations of the industrial age — motorized vehicles, electricity generation and industrial manufacturing — are the greatest sources of CO2 emissions [source: EPA]. Since world leaders appear unwilling or unable to take meaningful action to reduce greenhouse emissions, some maverick scientists are proposing a risky solution called geoengineering.
Geoengineering uses science and technology to "hack" the planet back into shape. Since global warming is the biggest threat, scientists are proposing creatively creepy (and very expensive) ways to artificially cool the atmosphere by either blocking the sun's rays or sucking up excess CO2. Among them [sources: Bullis, Kintisch and Madrigal]:
- Spraying chemical aerosols like sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to bounce a fraction of sunlight back into space
- Pouring iron into the ocean to spur algae blooms that consume CO2
- Spraying a mist of seawater into low-lying clouds to make them brighter, reflecting more sunlight
- Planting forests of artificial trees that use chemical reactions to absorb and store CO2
Even geoengineering promoters warn of unintended side effects. Out-of-control algae blooms could create massive dead zones in the ocean; one nation's seawater spray could cause monsoons halfway around the world; chemical reactions could cause widespread damage to natural habitats and human life. Geoengineers argue there's just as much danger in doing nothing. By researching these techniques now, at least we'll have some hard data when it's time to push the panic button.
For our last scary technology, we consider a little thing called the Internet.
More than 380 million people visited Web sites owned by Google and Yahoo in an average month in 2013 [source: Wohlsen]. Every e-mail sent through Gmail, every spreadsheet saved in Google Docs and every chat conversation held on Yahoo Messenger is stored in "the cloud," a global network of servers and data centers. You might assume that all of this private information and personal data is encrypted and protected from prying eyes. But now we know better.
Thanks to the leaked revelations of former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden in 2013, we learned that the U.S. intelligence agency is actively sifting through e-mails, search histories and phone records of millions of innocent people, looking for potential terrorist activity. As part of a secret program called PRISM, the NSA won court approval to force companies like Google and Yahoo to turn over records on foreign Web users. If that wasn't enough, the NSA also secretly tapped into Google and Yahoo's cloud servers without the companies' knowledge or approval [source: Peterson]. Critics call it blatantly unconstitutional to submit every unwitting Web user to blanket surveillance.
As scary as it is, you should assume that all your online activities are being collected by someone, whether it's your Internet provider, Google or a secret government spying program. Sleep tight and don't let Big Brother bite!
MIT's AlterEgo allows people to control computers without ever uttering one word. HowStuffWorks looks at how this could change the way we communicate.
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- Bullis, Kevin. "The Geoengineering Gambit." MIT Technology Review. Dec. 21, 2009. (Nov. 15, 2013) http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/416801/the-geoengineering-gambit/
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