Top Ten things from the future that are already here

6 02 2011

“The future has already arrived. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” William Gibson

Or for something a little more light hearted, check out this xkcd strip.

Which ever one you like the most, they both tell the same story: we’re living in the future. Technology surrounds us now, to the point we’re almost oblivious to its pervasiveness. Digital cameras that fit in pens, the computing power of a Cray-1 in your iphone, it’s a pretty amazing time to be alive (and a little scary when you think about all the other things going on.)

So here’s Cosmoboy’s list of fun things that feel like they come from the future but are already here. Some of the inventions aren’t quite what was imagined in the Jetsons, you might even call them a cheesy version, while others are still developing. But they all exist, or at the very least you can order one.

10. Flying cars – Yep, they’re here. They work. They look awful! So let’s get the one that didn’t quite turn into what we imagined out of the way first. In January of 2011 US-based Terrafugia announced that they would begin production of the  “Transition” an aircraft that converts into a car by folding its wings. Not quite what we had in mind when watching the Jetsons or the Fifth Element, and it needs a runway to take off. So no zipping up into the air when you’re stuck in a traffic jam…

9. Medical scanning technologies – Whether it’s Positron Emission Tomography (PET) or Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), medical imaging technologies now rival what was imagined by the science fiction writes of 1960s and 70s. Want a nice 3D image of nerves in your brain, and you want to know what’s going on biochemically? Then fuse PET and MRI technologies together! As these technologies get better our level of understanding of the brain will grow in leaps and bounds. Many researchers are starting to believe our understanding will be limited only by how complex we can make our models.

8. Artificial Intelligence – Perhaps not what was envisaged in the 60s, but you can’t deny the existence of systems that learn and adapt. And if you really want the hairs on the back of your neck to stand up, Google researchers regularly publish papers on AI. Chatbot Suzette managed to convince a judge she was human after 20 minutes of conversation in 2010 (may be the judge needs to get out more!) Of course, AI goes through periods of popularity and disdain, but progress is being made all the time. Just try playing with Wolfram Alpha.

7. Powered Exoskeletons – Military applications have driven much of this technology, but at least three companies sell, or will soon bring to market, systems to help disabled individuals. Berkely Bionics made a big splash in 2010 with its eLEGS launch, with Time Magazine calling it one of the 50 Best Inventions of 2010. Of course battery life is an issue, current projections suggest about six hours of time under normal use. At 45lbs the system isn’t too heavy either. Makes you wonder about what improved battery technology could do and also whether composites could bring the weight down still further.

6. Clothes that capture energy – whether it is embedded solar panels, or fabrics that store energy when you flex them, researchers have been trying to find ways of tapping the energy that’s all around us. While solar panels are an obvious route and are here, much more interesting is the use of microfibre nanogenerators that utilize the piezoelectric effect to generate current as they are flexed (OK, I’m cheating, this is one technology still in development). The main problem is there just isn’t all that much energy put into moving your clothes. Estimates suggest that we might be able to get up to a few hundred milliwatts of power. Now if we could store that over time, then maybe it starts to get interesting, and researchers are now suggesting we combine solar and piezo approaches. How about your iphone running off your shirt?

5. Private space travel – It’s expensive right now, how about $20 million, but it’s coming down in price soon to a cool few hundred thousand – thanks to competition from Virgin Galactic! If you can’t wait, then just check out the Space Adventures website and book your ride to the International Space Station, heck they’ve even got a page on a lunar mission. Oh, and the price war with Branson’s Virgin Galactic means you can now book a sub-orbital experience with Space Adventures for a mere $102,000, almost half the price of a trip on SpaceShipTwo.

4. Minature diagnosis technology – the “lab on a chip” idea has been around for quite some time, but today you can buy systems that will analyze a tiny drop of blood for your glucose, potassium, sodium, creatinine, calcium… the list goes on. In the very near future these “micro-electro-mechanical” systems will be able to diagnose infections as well (influenza is the disease most commonly mentioned). Will that lead to an explosion of self-diagnosis tools? That’s a little bit worrying. Talking to the doctor and getting feedback is still an important part of medical treatment. But perhaps the key point here is the potential cost savings and speed increase. Laboratory testing, with the human element and space required, remains extremely expensive and takes time.

3. 3D TV – I have to confess I really wasn’t waiting for this one, but it’s here. With the cheesy glasses too. The ones without the glasses only seem to work if you’re really close to the screen. And I’m not alone, a lot of people seem to be pretty underwhelmed by 3D TV. Which makes me wonder: is the real problem that we really haven’t figured out how to use 3D TV most effectively? Oh, and shots of saws coming out of the screen are so passe! But just think what a job Spielberg could have done with Jurassic Park if he’d made the original in 3D! Now that’s something worth seeing…

2. Robots that help with the housework – the true enabler of domestic bliss(!?). Imagine having a helpful “Robbie the Robot” to wash, cook and clean. Well other than it sounds little indulgent, the reality is quite a bit less glamourous. But domestic robots are here. There are already over 20 examples of robotic vacuum cleaners (Roomba was only the beginning!) And from Roomba’s humble beginnings we now have Scooba, the floor washing robot, Verro, the pool cleaning robot, and Looj the (you’ll never guess it) gutter cleaning robot. Actually when I saw “Looj” I thought “Oh a toilet cleaning robot! That’s something I would buy!”. But alas no… But if you want your feline toilet cleaned, then it’s litter-robot to the rescue!

1. The Dick Tracy wristwatch communicator – As a kid, growing up in the 70s, I remember thinking how silly the cartoon was: nobody would ever have a video phone, yet alone one so small you could put it in a wrist watch. Oops. (Well…the original idea of a wrist radio seemed sensible enough…) So here we are 30 years later and it’s real! LG made quite the splash in 2009 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas with the demo, and it’s now widely in available in Europe, but not it seems North America. The battery life is supposed to be about 2 hours of talk time, but I’m not sure about video. Oh and the demo of the video isn’t really that impressive, but c’mon… It’s a Dick Tracy watch! 🙂

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