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March 17, 2010

Lucky in lunacy

Human ingenuity is truly a wonder to behold. It’s refreshing and hopeful that — even though the economy is ruined, jobs are scarce, health care is unaffordable, and Lil Wayne is in prison — technological advancements keep barreling along full speed like a braking Toyota. While the news in recent days has been dominated by the sick, the unemployed, the uneducated and the senators who keep them that way, the world’s top nerds have been quietly inventing enough sci-fi magic to make Steve Jobs sprout an ePole in his iPants.

For example, a Japanese company called NTT DoCoMo has invented a gadget that lets users control a phone or music player simply by moving their eyes. By darting his or her eyes left, right, up or down, users can skip or pause a song, or adjust the device’s volume.

Not too many years ago, the only people who talked loudly to themselves in public were crazy people. With the invention of Bluetooth, those days are gone. It’s now common to see people blathering alone, exclaiming all manner of inanities and preposterous arguments and intimate details, but many of them are just talking on the phone. With the new DoCoMo technology, those purportedly sane people can now further enhance their lunatic appearance by going googly eyed while they blather. About all that’s left to convert the landscape into a virtual mental institution is for some enterprising company to invent a gadget we control by hurling our own feces.

Of course, if we’re going to be constantly talking on the phone and darting our eyes, we’re going to miss a lot of what many people consider “life.” Fortunately, Microsoft has invented the “Sensecam,” a digital-camera pendant that measures our movements and captures digital images of life’s most precious moments: the ones we missed because we were talking on the phone and darting our eyes. The Sensecam user can later review the images to see what’s been going on for the past couple of hours. The necklace-camera is expected to be invaluable for Alzheimer’s sufferers, social-networking devotees and those desperately trying to remember with whom they slept last night.

But the techno-stampede isn’t limited to mere gadgetry. Spurred by the climate crisis, major overseas players in the automotive and energy fields are rushing to overcome the time-honored tenet that just because a region is illiterate, inbred and religiously fanatical doesn’t mean it gets to hog all the natural energy resources. If they have their way, Bolivia will become the new Saudi Arabia and Germany and Spain will become the new Appalachia.

With batteries poised to power everything from our cars to our Sensecams, lithium is emerging as the next century’s natural resource worth starting wars over. Lithium — until recently only valued as a mood-altering drug for non-Bluetooth out-loud talkers — is now the go-to source for battery power. Just think: Today, the next Dick Cheney could be toddling around in diapers, plotting a lithium war with Bolivia, Argentina, Chile or Australia, which hold the bulk of the world’s supply.

Meanwhile, Germany, Spain and Italy are emerging as the world leaders in solar technology. By subsidizing the heavy startup costs of thermal solar plants, those countries are racing ahead of the United States in solar technology and are on track to achieve cost-competitiveness with fossil fuels within a few years — something our lame-brained and corrupt leaders won’t even attempt until the last mountaintop is gone forever.

But whether we have to turn to Bolivians, Saudis, Spaniards or Appalachians for our energy needs, one thing’s for sure: They won’t be speaking English. Fortunately, the world’s most self-conscious company is coming to our rescue. Google has been quietly putting its nerdillionaires to work creating the world’s most powerful translation machine, according to The New York Times. Capable of instantly translating among 52 languages, Google Translate uses a databank of millions of human-translated voices to perfect a system that now nearly matches the accuracy of a human translator. What’s more, the company soon plans to release image-analysis technology that would let you scan a menu, say, or, presumably, your butt and translate its description into any language (using, one would hope, a feces-throwing interface).

Yes, it’s a dangerous, delicate and sometimes scary world out there. But the next time you see a crackpot talking loudly to himself at the coffee shop, just remember: With a little luck, that could soon be you.