It has been said that knowledge is power. Machines also have power in the form of mechanical strength and, of course, there is electric power. According to the dictionary, the short definition of power is "the ability to do" -- and the latest week's advances in science and technology all relate to this.
Just imagine if you could read someone's mind: That skill would give you an immense amount of power. Well, last Monday, researchers in Germany announced that they had successfully predicted a number of people's intentions before the people themselves were even consciously aware of the decision they were about to make.
The scientists pulled off this stunt by using MRI technology to study a person's brain patterns. Now, the researchers were only trying to determine whether a person would either decide to add or subtract two numbers together and they were only right 71% of the time, but it is still a significantly higher percentage -- 21% to be precise -- than random selection (i.e., guessing).
It's also important to remember that MRI technology and other brain-related technologies such as ones IBM is developing are only going to continue to get better, and with time, both the accuracy and the type of outcomes that the technologies will be able to predict should increase accordingly. Researchers have speculated that such technology could be used in criminal interrogations and airline security checks, among other things.
Such uses aren't on the immediate horizon, but what was made clear last week is that brain-machine interfaces in the video game world will reach the market by the end of this year. Private start-up companies, including Emotiv Systems, NeuroSky, and CyberLearning, introduced tools that decipher the electrical signals in a player's brains and allow them to control the action on the screen using only their minds.
According to reports, the technology is still a little rough around the edges and initially will be limited to reading facial reactions and sensing emotions (such as excitement); but you might recall that Sony
As such, I would encourage investors to watch for similar advances from Microsoft and Nintendo, because avid gamers are always looking for the next great challenge, and something tells me that mind-control technologies could offer the ultimate challenge.
If brain-controlled video games sound bizarre, there were some other strange happenings in the past week. In a California court, an artificial intelligence software program that helped people prepare bankruptcy filings was cited for the unlicensed practice of law after it was found to provide faulty advice on occasion.
Bankruptcy lawyers can breathe a little easier now that they no longer need to compete against the inexpensive software program. But they shouldn't gloat too much because similar programs are already getting better and will eventually know the law even better than their human counterparts.
Alas, lawyers aren't the only ones in danger of losing their jobs. Airline pilots should also be casting a cautious glance over their shoulders. The Israel Aerospace Industries in the past week unveiled an unmanned cargo plane capable of carrying a payload of up to 30 tons.
According to a poll conducted by Boeing, 70% of people still would refuse to fly in a pilotless plane. This suggests that beleaguered airlines such as Northwest and Delta probably won't be able to let go of many pilots in the near future, but I would look for FedEx
The rise of machines is gaining so much steam that the government of South Korea announce that it intended to create an ethical code to prevent humans from abusing robots by the end of the year. This is probably not a moment too soon, because there could be a lot of angry, unemployed lawyers and pilots looking to kick a machine.
A little closer to home, in the past week there was more tangible evidence that flexible, plastic solar cells have taken a few more steps toward becoming a viable alternative to silicon-based solar cells. Moser Baer announced that it would begin building a $250 million thin-film solar cell plant in India, with the help of Applied Materials
While I am still bullish on a number of solar companies -- including Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation Suntech Power
Foolish bottom line
In the investing world, it's important to understand who has the power today, but it's even more important to understand who will have it tomorrow. These latest advances suggest that the landscape for a number of industries is poised to shift dramatically as power is transferred to some new hands, and the purchasing power of some investors' portfolios could also be influenced.
Look back at recent progress:
Interested in staying abreast of the latest in biotech, nanotech, information technology, or the cognitive sciences? You can't download a subscription to Rule Breakers to your brain yet, but you can sign up for a free 30-day trial.
Fool contributor Jack Uldrich is the author of two books on nanotechnology, and his latest book, which deals with the exponential growth of a number of technologies, will be published this fall. He does not own stock in any of the companies mentioned in this article, except for Suntech Power. Microsoft is an Inside Value pick and FedEx is a Stock Advisor recommendation. The Fool has a strict disclosure policy.