Kevin Ashton, one of the originators of the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology and proposer of the Internet of Things, has expressed bafflement over the fact that while the world has become intimately connected by always-on internet, jetliners can still vanish into the blue. Writing in the New York Times, he suggested that this is because the aviation industry is still using Cold War technology. The Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) was created in the 1970s. Black boxes are like very rugged thumb drives which can transmit a beacon, and were designed using hardware from before streaming data, which reports in real time.
The tragedy is positively an outrage when seen through the lens of technology. But, perplexingly, the biggest technology news was the second public sale of Google Glass, which fractionally increased the population of ‘Explorers’ who are pioneering this flavour of wearable computing. Glass is being hailed as the most disruptive technology ever, generally by people who do not appreciate the disruptiveness of, say, steam power. The beam engine and the locomotive had not only disrupted but also forcefully reorganised the politics and economics of the world, to a degree that a visual, always-visible, location-aware internet—which is what wearable computing will initially build—may not do.
But last month there was news (yet again) of another technology which is theoretically simple but could be as disruptive as Glass—a weapons delivery system straight out of science fiction. From 2012, gun-crazies on the internet have been periodically going ape over a BAE railgun being tested by the US Navy. They just love the specs of the prototype, which hurls a projectile over 100 miles at Mach 7. It transfers 34 megajoules of kinetic energy to the target, producing a powerful explosion without the need for high explosive. Redneck lips are being smacked in anticipation of the battlefield model, which may pack double the punch over twice the distance, and will be tested on board ship for the first time in 2016.
The railgun made news recently because the US Navy’s Surface Warfare Division at Dahlgren, Virginia, which started testing in 2007, shared a rather dramatic video of the railgun being fired. Never mind the excitement of the maniacs, the gun is actually a remarkable product. It is the first real progress in conventional weapons technology since the invention of gunpowder during the reign of Song dynasty in China. In the intervening period,