Will the future run out of technology?

If you haven’t seen it, this opinionated, provocative, and forceful essay by Bruce Gibney at Founder’s Fund is a great read. Starting with the question of why venture capital return has generally sucked over the past two decades, he delves into issue of real vs. fake technology, why we’ve been too quick to be satisfied with incremental progress, and whether there is that much revolutionary technology left to invent.

“What happened to the future?”:

Have we reached the end of the line, a sort of technological end of history? Once every last retailer migrates onto the Internet, will that be it? Is the developed world really developed, full stop? Again, it may be helpful to revisit previous conceptions of the future to see if there are any areas where VC might yet profitably invest.

In 1958, Ford introduced the Nucleon, an atom-powered, El Camino-shaped concept car. From the perspective of the present, the Nucleon seems audacious to the point of idiocy, but consider at the time Nautilus, the first atomic submarine, had just been launched in 1954 (and that less than ten years after the first atomic bomb). The Nucleon was ambitious – and a marketing gimmick, to be sure – but it was not entirely out of the realm of reason. Ten years later, in 1968, Arthur C. Clarke predicted imminent commercial space travel and genuine (if erratic) artificial intelligences. “2001: A Space Odyssey” was fiction, of course, but again, its future didn’t seem implausible at the time; the Apollo program was ready to put Armstrong on the moon less than a decade after Gagarin, and computers were becoming common place just a few years after Kilby and Noyce dreamed up the integrated circuit. The future envisioned from the perspective of the 1960s was hard to get to, but not impossible, and people were willing to entertain the idea. We now laugh at the Nucleon and Pan Am to the moon while applauding underpowered hybrid cars and Easyjet, and that’s sad. The future that people in the 1960s hoped to see is still the future we’re waiting for today, half a century later. Instead of Captain Kirk and the USS Enterprise, we got the Priceline Negotiator and a cheap flight to Cabo.

There are major exceptions: as we’ve seen, computers and communication technologies advanced enormously (even if Windows 2000 is a far cry from Hal 9000) and the Internet has evolved into something far more powerful and pervasive than its architects had ever hoped for. But a lot of what seemed futuristic then remains futuristic now, in part because these technologies never received the sustained funding lavished on the electronics industries. Commercializing the technologies that have languished seems as good a place as any to start looking for ideas

Science for the People: Science & Shakespeare

sftpThis week, Science for the People looks at the way science influenced the work of the greatest author in English, and what modern scholars think about its origins. We’re joined by journalist and author Dan Falk, to talk about his book The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe. And we’ll speak to Shakespeare scholar and blogger Stanley Wells, for his perspective on the question of who actually wrote Shakespeare’s works.

*Josh provides research help to Science for the People and is, therefore, completely biased.

Nature on the PhD Glut

This week Nature covers the online response to Eve Marder’s piece in eLife arguing that we shouldn’t shrink PhD programs. The article mentions my response and adds a few more comments by people with different perspectives. Go over and read it, and chime in with your opinions!


Sometimes, life is more fun when one’s email spam filters are just a wee bit leaky*.

Dear Sir/madam,

I would like to purchase a large quantity of goods with good quality from your company.Kindly get back to me with a price list I wait for your immediate response.

If I had any belief that there was someone on the other end of this metaphorical (but also kind of literal) line:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I regret to inform you that we sell very few goods and that they are of embarassingly poor quality. We charge a flate rate of one billion dollars.

*There is also the whole false positive/false negative issue. If you don’t want significant false positives (ie, missing an email about an important meeting), then you usually have to live with a few negatives (see above).

Protein Folding

I am contractually obligated to discuss the basics, the very basic basics, of protein folding with my class over the next week or so. This strip from Randall Munroe’s xkcd will be appearing in the lecture.

xkcd by Randall Munroe (CC BY-NC 2.5)

I will be watching closely for looks of recognition, which will allow me to evaluate how cool my students are. You decide which direction the “cool” runs on that one.