The times they are a-changin’… it can safely be said that we now inhabit the science fiction world of our grandparents. While we do not yet commute to work via pneumatic tube or live on Mars, the reality computers, GPS, and a world made of plastic are now ubiquitous. Here are five emerging technologies that seem to come straight from the pages of science fiction.
5. Flying Cars
“Where’s my jet pack?” That’s the often-heard cry that goes out whenever people lament the progress of technology. One similar breakthrough that has been long awaited is the flying car. Like the hover cars used by the Jetsons, the idea is not new; Waldo Waterman actually built a flying car prototype, dubbed the Aerobile, in 1937. The idea, however, has hit several practical setbacks. It’s tough enough to safety engineer ordinary automobiles for use by John-Q Public, and a personal aircraft would be doubly so. Then there would be the challenge of air traffic control for large volumes of travellers (think of the freeway in three dimensions) and the need for large areas for airfields (perhaps each subdivision would have its own runway?) Still, if Terrafugia has its way, personal aircraft that are street legal may become a reality … again, the safety engineering that guarantees everyone can utilize the craft may prove to be the real challenge.
Long a science-fiction staple, the mantra for future technology may be to “think small.” The military, for example, is already building spy drones about the size of a large insect for reconnaissance. Nanotech is also being used in the development of stain-resistant clothing. Other innovative applications exist. Imagine a paint consisting of millions of smart nanoparticles that are black on one side and white on another that would know to flip to take advantage of available solar insulation when applied to a roof. Or perhaps a doctor in the future will inject a cancer patient with tiny nanorobots to attack a tumor. Or the doctor might use inoculations that could repair the damage to cells caused by radiation during a trip to Mars. Of particular interest is a nanomaterial known as a Bucky Ball, a type of carbon fullerene composed of 60 carbon atoms in a spherical lattice. Carbon nanotubes also have some pretty amazing properties, and may one day form the backbone of a space elevator capable of hoisting payloads into orbit.
3. Interactive Environment
One of the most fascinating technologies that has emerged in recent years is something right out of the cyberpunk world of Johnny Mnemonic — the virtual reality world known as interactive environment. Already, you may have a primitive forerunner of this technology on your dashboard or in your pocket via a GPS or cell phone. Certain applications, such as “Google Goggles,” give you a real-time modeling of your environment, while some planetarium applications even allow you to simulate the night sky from your location. This technology may progress from your phone, to a goggle headset, and eventually to perhaps contacts or even implants. What’s truly wonderful about this kind of tech is that you never know what folks will do with it until you put it in their hands. Will you soon roam your local store and see virtual balloons floating next to items with competing sales and prices? Will you meet people at parties and see their name and personal info floating above them? (Assuming they’re not blocking you, of course.)
2. Quantum Computing
The growth of computing power follows a dictum known as Moore’s Law, which states that computer processing capability doubles about every 18 months. But how long can we sustain this growth? If a technology known as quantum dot computing becomes reality in the next decade or so, we may soon have fingernail-sized iPods capable of storing the complete Library of Congress. This works off of utilizing the spin state of particles’ quantum level. Without getting too technical, the Pauli exclusion principle gives us rules for electrons existing paired off in either an “up” or “down” spin state; the tricky thing will be reading and predicting spin states in an uncertain quantum world. Already, demonstrations of quantum encryption may have provided codes that are truly unbreakable. The amount of storage capacity would be vast — one mole of silicon weighs about 28 grams, and contains 6.022×1023 atoms plus accompanying electrons, more stars than there are in the known universe.
1. Genetic Engineering
Despite the current fears of genetically modified foods, man has been genetically modifying domesticated plants and animals for years via natural selection. With the completion of the human genome project in 2003, the biggest hope and fear is that we will be able to soon apply genetic modification to humans. Could Huxley’s Brave New World or the horrors of Gattaca be just around the corner? Certainly, genetic engineering holds great promise to cure such diseases as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and cystic fibrosis. It may soon even be possible, (if ghoulish) to grow “headless humans” for a supply of organs available for transplants. Perhaps the biggest fear is the ethics involved, and the worry that not only will we be able to custom-build our children, but also genetically engineer an army or use pre-selection as predestination for ones’ role in life. Will life insurance companies be able to deny customers at birth on the statistical likelihood of developing a disease? And who owns their chromosomes, modified or otherwise? Certainly, many ethical issues swirl around genetic engineering, but the reality of any technology is that once it’s possible, someone somewhere will simply move forward and do it, ethics aside.
One More: 3D Printers
Wouldn’t it be convenient to be able to create a part or tool whenever you needed it? 3D printing technology may allow you to soon do just that. The idea is for a series of printer-head injectors to build up an item, one layer at a time. The injectors would be loaded with plasters, resins and bonding agents that would combine to make a solid object. It’s not inconceivable that even more exotic materials could be used. Think of the Star Trek replicators come to reality. Immediate applications could be for creation of needed items at remote locations such as deep-sea facilities or the International Space Station. You could also custom fabricate a house or vehicle, one brick or part at a time. Ideally, single-use tools fabricated could even be recycled. Imagine a day when you would simply download blueprints for physical items and then produce them at home with a 3-D printer.