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Top 5 Technology Panics of 2009

Image Courtesy of Apple

#5 – Exploding iPods

THE TECHNOLOGY: Apple iPods and iPhones contain a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, one of the most efficient batteries yet developed. A lithium battery can carry more than three times the energy of an old-fashioned nickel-cadmium battery.

THE PANIC: Lithium is a pretty reactive element, and if it short-circuits, a lithium-ion battery can heat up rapidly. This can cause iPhones, iPods, and other electronic devices to explode — the heat makes the display shatter, turning your cool new touchscreen into a blizzard of dangerous shrapnel. It can also make anything nearby catch fire; one Dutch man‘s iPhone even burned a hole right through his car‘s seat. Every iPhone out there could really be an incendiary bomb in disguise, waiting for the right moment to go off and wreak havoc on techno-geeks and music lovers the world over.

THE REALITY: While lithium batteries have been known to do some unpleasant things, these incidents are, on the whole, incredibly rare. Only a handful of malfunctions have been reported, out of tens of millions of Apple products sold worldwide every year. You‘re probably more likely to win the lottery or get struck by lightning than to have your phone explode. The Consumer Product Safety Commission investigated the matter, and they have found only fifteen incidents nationwide, none of which caused serious injury. They concluded that the risk of an accident is “very low.”

#4 – Robots Attack

THE TECHNOLOGY: Workplaces, particularly factories, are becoming increasingly automated. A large percentage of consumer products are never touched by human hands before they are bought — they are manufactured, assembled, and distributed entirely by robots. This revolution in production has allowed all of us to lead lives of comparative luxury, with toys undreamt of by nineteenth-century kings.

The Panic: Once the machine is released, it will chomp up everything in its path – plants, animals, even the bodies of fallen soldiers.

THE PANIC: In April, a Swedish worker was nearly killed by a factory robot while attempting to perform maintenance on it. He thought that the robot — a machine used for lifting heavy rocks — was turned off, until it grabbed his head and attempted to crush him with its pincer-like robot arms. He managed to fight it off, but only after suffering four broken ribs and a number of bruises. Can armies of vengeful Terminators, bent on the annihilation of the human race, be far behind?

THE REALITY: Factory work is dangerous and it always has been, ever since the Industrial Revolution began two hundred years ago. Indeed, most workplaces have actually gotten much safer over the years. As any student of nineteenth-century history will tell you, there used to be no safety regulations at all and people routinely had body parts crushed by machines without warning labels or safety guards. Robots themselves have been a tremendous help to us, doing the dirty and dangerous work so a human doesn‘t have to. Unsurprisingly, the press doesn‘t report on people who don‘t get hurt.

#3 – "Sexting"

THE TECHNOLOGY: Cellphones with texting capability, a camera, and a wireless Internet connection have become increasingly ubiquitous over the past five years, with tens of millions in use in the US alone.

THE PANIC: Studies show that millions of people are using these cellphones to take sexually explicit photos of teenagers, and distribute them to their friends. And the primary allure of the cellphone — its portability and user friendliness — makes it extremely easy to get and send pornographic images of anyone. Are we in the middle of the biggest child porn epidemic in our nation‘s history?

Top 5 Technology Panics of 2009THE REALITY: The vast majority of these “child pornographers” are… the teenagers themselves. Most of the photos are of themselves, their boyfriends, or their girlfriends. And the recipients of the photos are almost always the other children at school. Teenagers have always been more sexually active than their parents and teachers would like to think, and the most recent generation is no exception. However, under child pornography statutes, it makes no difference if you‘re a teenager, or even if they‘re pictures of yourself. It‘s still a crime, and a number of teens have been brought up on felony sex offender charges just for having such photos stored on their phones. The Vermont legislature has recently introduced a bill that would legalize these photos as long as the participants are willing and between the ages of 13 and 18, hopefully bringing some much-needed sanity to this panic.

#2 – Bombing the Moon

THE TECHNOLOGY:  NASA‘s LCROSS spacecraft, which blasted off in the general direction of the Moon this June, with a mission to confirm the presence of ice in the Moon‘s shadowy polar regions.

THE PANIC: LCROSS will investigate the Moon, not by landing on it, but by doing something rather more spectacular: smashing a projectile into the Moon‘s polar region, and then analyzing the resulting debris plume. Scientists predict that the plume will even be visible from Earth, with a reasonably sized amateur telescope. When LCROSS launched, there were a number of reports about how NASA was “bombing the Moon” in violation of the Outer Space Treaty. Conspiracy theorists even claim that it‘s a ploy by the government to antagonize a secret alien base on the far side.

THE REALITY: NASA‘s “missile” isn‘t a bomb, an explosive, a nuke, or indeed anything special at all — it‘s just an old, burnt-out rocket stage without any fuel left. It‘s tiny compared to the Moon: the rocket stage weighs around two tons, while the Moon weighs in at a slightly heftier 73,477,000,000,000,000,000 tons. And, while it is a violation of international law to put nuclear weapons in space, there‘s no law against crashing a spacecraft into a celestial body. It‘s been standard practice for almost fifty years, from the early days of space exploration in the 1960s, to last June, when Japan‘s Kaguya probe ended its life with a bang.

Image Courtesy of Robotic Technology Inc.#1 – Flesh Eating Robots

THE TECHNOLOGY:  Cyclone Power Technologies‘ “Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot,” or EATR, a steam-powered robot developed under a grant from the Pentagon and intended for use by the military.

THE PANIC: Engineers hope that EATR will be able to power itself for months at a time by roaming around the battlefield autonomously and consuming “organic matter” to feed its engine. Once the machine is released, it will chomp up everything in its path —- plants, animals, even the bodies of fallen soldiers. It will relentlessly consume to sate its insatiable thirst for fuel. It even comes with a chainsaw, perhaps to help it slice us up into more manageable pieces, before it feasts upon our flesh?

THE REALITY: After the rumors started making their way around the Internet, EATR‘s designers stepped in to clarify: the “flesh-eating robot” will consume vegetable matter only, and it comes equipped with a suite of sensors and computers to help it determine whether the things it comes across are animal, vegetable or neither. After all, desecration of the dead is against the laws of war and plant matter is a much better fuel source anyway. There are a lot more bushes to feast upon than human bodies.

Thomas McCabe is a mathematics student at Yale University and a research associate at the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence.