Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Wanted: Technological Revolutions

My seminar on "Legal Issues of the 21st Century" deals with technological revolutions that might happen and the legal issues those revolutions would raise. After teaching it for some years, I turned it into a book. I am teaching it again this spring and am in search of new material, new revolutions. I have one idea, am looking for more.

The one idea is the possibility of non-human animals with roughly human level abilities, including some way of communicating with humans. It is at least arguable that some species already have adequate intelligence and lack only a common language. That is the claim implicit in some highly publicized—and controversial—past work teaching sign language to non-human primates. The people who worked with Koko, for instance, a female gorilla, estimated her IQ at 75-90 and claimed she understood 2000 words and had a working vocabulary of over 1000 signs. Other possible candidates are cetaceans, especially dolphins, and, surprisingly enough, grey parrots. I am suspicious of such claims, since the primate experiments got a lot of attention quite a long time ago; if the results were as good as claimed, we should have seen a lot more evidence by now. But I could be wrong.

If suitable animals do not yet exist, perhaps we could get them via genetic engineering, a popular theme in science fiction. Or we might learn enough about the functioning of the brain to be able to improve the brains of other species (and our own, which raises another set of issues), perhaps by the use of suitable drugs. Whatever the mechanism, the existence of animals able to communicate with us on a more or less human level would raise many interesting questions, including lots of legal issues.

While I welcome comments on this idea, that is not the main reason for this post. What I am looking for are some more revolutions. What technological developments not already covered in Future Imperfect might revolutionize our world over the next thirty years or so?

Android Update

As regular readers know, I have long been in search of the perfect pda/phone/web browser. The latest Android phone, the Motorola Droid, officially announced today, may bring that goal a little closer. The screen is substantially larger than the screen on my G1, the keyboard is said to be a little better. The phone is not due to go on sale until November 6th, so until then I will have to be satisfied with pictures.

While gathering information on the Droid, I looked a little more carefully at the question of support for an external bluetooth keyboard, one of the features that my G1 lacks. Apparently the Droid will lack it too, at least for a while. Connecting such a keyboard requires the appropriate bluetooth profile, software telling the phone how to interpret the information coming in from the keyboard. Such a profile does not yet exist as part of the Android software, although developers appear to be working on the problem.

While on the subject of smartphones, I have an idea for a software product that, so far as I know, does not now exist—smartphone OCR. Use the camera on your phone to photograph a page of text, have software on the phone or, if the phone's processing power is insufficient, somewhere out on the net, turn the picture into text.