Almost every day, somebody posts the following on Twitter or Facebook: “In 1949, forecasting the relentless march of science, Popular Mechanics said, ‘Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1,5 tons’.”
It’s one of those quotations – often plucked from online lists of similar nuggets – that people like to circulate as a pleasant reminder of how much smarter they are than those who lived before them. The actual quotation, from the March 1949 issue of Popular Mechanics, goes like this: “Where a calculator like ENIAC today is equipped with 18 000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1 000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh only 1½ tons.”
It reads a bit differently in context, right? Written at the time when computers were still huge mechanical/electrical contraptions, the article provided a pretty solid overview of the infant technology. Of course, what the article did not anticipate were two of the most pivotal inventions in human history: the transistor, which came into widespread use in the mid-1950s, and the integrated circuit, or microchip, which intensified the march towards miniaturisation a decade later. The first fully transistorised computer, the IBM 608, hit the market in late 1957.
It weighed more than a ton.
And therein lies the dilemma for anyone who dares speculate about the future. Even if you’re accurate in the near term – and PM’s 1949 story was a respectable piece of prognostication – a prediction can begin to look naïve or ridiculous when viewed a generation or two later. But we don’t let that stop us. As a magazine about science and engineering, it’s our job to explain how technologies just now coming into view might shape the future.
In preparing this 110th anniversary issue of Popular Mechanics, I’ve spent a lot of time leafing through our archives. It’s pretty inspiring to see how well the magazine anticipated crucial turning points in technology – the impact of the automobile, the rise of mass aviation, the space programme. In a 1932 article, Winston Churchill predicted a combination of telephone and television that sounds a lot like today’s Internet. And when the Internet era finally did dawn, PM devoted a 1994 cover story to this new “Information Superhighway”, calling it “the greatest social revolution since the automobile”. Yep, that sounds about right.
One of my favourite articles was written by science writer Waldemar Kaempffert and published in 1950. Entitled “Miracles you’ll see in the next fifty years”, the piece showed remarkable prescience, predicting the interstate highway system, automated factories, weather-forecasting supercomputers, and medical imaging devices similar to modern CAT scans. But Kaempffert’s misses were as interesting as his hits. He envisioned a future in which “rich people in a hurry” would fly in 1 000-mile-per-hour rocket planes, while ordinary folks would commute in the “family helicopter”.
Sorry to disappoint you, dear readers, but we’re still waiting on those. Here’s the problem: just because something is possible does not mean it is inevitable. Building a supersonic passenger jet (though not a rocket) became feasible in the late 20th century – and the Concorde really did cruise at Mach 2, or more than 2 000 km/h. But the high-speed fuel guzzler never made money, and it was finally pulled from service in 2003. Similarly, those personal helicopters (the subject of much hopeful conjecture in PM over the years) would be simple enough to build. But there is no simple way to fit millions of new aircraft into our urban skies – and the very idea injects new terror into the phrase “learner’s permit”.
One of the most fascinating things in the Kaempffert article is his depiction of domestic life circa 2000: homes are built of metal and plastic; dishes, sheets and clothing are all disposable; and, to clean up, the homemaker “simply turns the hose on everything”. Even food would be synthesised from sawdust and wood chips and delivered to the home in frozen blocks.
It was a logical expectation. Mid-century America quickly embraced novelties such as polyester clothing, frozen TV
dinners and labour-saving dishwashers. Why wouldn’t such trends continue indefinitely? Well, it turns out that while we all appreciate convenience, we also like a good home-cooked meal once in a while.
Most Americans still walk on wood floors, wear cotton and wool clothing, and cook food that their great-grandparents would find quite familiar. One of the biggest challenges in forecasting the future isn’t understanding technology, it’s understanding people – and people don’t have an unlimited appetite for change.
Perhaps the trickiest part of making predictions is getting the timing right. Some advances are slowed by social inertia or economic impracticality. Others suddenly leap ahead as a result of a technological breakthrough such as the microchip.
In making the 110 predictions in this special issue, we tried to balance our deep-rooted techno-optimism with some hardheaded scepticism. We turned to scores of experts – scientists, engineers and many longtime PM contributors and consultants – to help us sketch the rough shape of the next century. We canvassed our experts about the nature of future changes and when key breakthroughs might occur. How did we do? There’s only one way to know for sure: check back with us in 110 years. – JAMES B MEIGS, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, POPULAR MECHANICS, USA.
Around the Corner – 2012 to 2022
- People will be fluent in every language.
With DARPA and Google racing to perfect instant translation, it won’t be long until your cellphone speaks Swahili on your behalf.
- Software will predict traffic jams before they occur.
Using archived data, roadside sensors and GPS, IBM has come up with a modelling program that anticipates bumper-to-bumper congestion a full hour before it begins. Better yet, the idea proved successful in early tests – even on the Jersey Turnpike.
- Climate-controlled jackets will protect soldiers from extreme heat and cold.
The secret to all-weather clothing, according to former MIT student Kranthi Vistakula, is Peltier plates, which can be used to warm you up or cool you down by sending an electric current across the junction between two different metals. US soldiers have put the lightweight tech to the test; so have soldiers in India. Based on early reviews, it won’t be long until others enlist.
- Nanoparticles will make chemotherapy far more effective.
By delivering tiny doses of cisplatin and docetaxel right to cancerous cells, the mini-messengers will significantly reduce the pain and side effects of today’s treatments.
- Electric cars will roam (some) highways.
Who says you can’t road-trip in a Tesla? In a few years, the 2 170 km stretch of Interstate 5 spanning Washington, Oregon and California will be lined with fast-charging stations – each no more than 100 km apart. In some areas, you will find stations to the east and west, too. Don’t get any bright ideas, though. If you try to cross the country, you won’t get much further than Tucson.
- Athletes will employ robotic trainers.
Picture a rotor-propelled drone that tracks a pattern on your T-shirt with an on-board camera. Now imagine it flying in front of you at world-record pace. That’s just the start – a simple concept developed by researchers in Australia.
- Bridges will repair themselves with self-healing concrete.
Invented by University of Michigan engineer Victor Li, the new composite is laced with microfibres that bend without breaking. Hairline fractures mend themselves within days when calcium ions in the mix react with rainwater and carbon dioxide to create a calcium carbonate patch.
- The PM brain trust says:
› Within 20 years
Self-driving cars will hit the mainstream market. Battles will be waged without direct human participation (think robots or unmanned aerial vehicles).
› Within 30 years
All-purpose robots will help us with household chores. Space travel will become as affordable as a round-the-world plane ticket.
› Within 50 years
We will have a colony on Mars.
- Digital ‘ants’ will protect the US power grid from cyber attacks.
Programmed to wander networks in search of threats, the high-tech sleuths in this software, developed by Wake Forest University security expert Errin Fulp, leave behind a digital trail modelled after the scent streams of their real-life cousins. When a digital ant designed to perform a task spots a problem, others rush to the location to do their own analysis. If operators see a swarm, they know there’s trouble.
- Scrolls wil replace tablets.
Researchers have already reproduced words and images on thin plastic digital displays. If they want those displays to compete with the iPad, they need to fine-tune the colour and refine the screens so you can put your feet up and watch people doing stupid stuff on YouTube.
- Your car will be truly connected.
› It will communicate with traffic lights to improve traffic flow.
› It will interact with other vehicles to prevent accidents.
› It will let you drag and drop a playlist from your home network.
› It will find the petrol station with the best discount and handle the payment.
› It will notify you when someone dents your door and supply footage of the incident.
- Your genome will be sequenced before you are born.
Researchers led by Jay Shendure of the University of Washington recently reconstructed the genome of a foetus using saliva from the father and a blood sample from the mother (which yielded free-floating DNA from the child). Blood from the umbilical cord later confirmed that the sequencing was 98 per cent accurate. Once the price declines, this procedure will allow us to conduct non-invasive prenatal testing.
- Radiation sickness will be cured by injection.
Thanks to interest from the US Department of Defence, several treatment options are now vying for FDA approval. In clinical trials, one of them, Ex-Rad, has not only prevented long-term cell damage, but also promoted bone marrow recovery.
- That car part you need will be sculpted inside a 3D printer.
Dentists are already using this modern tech wonder to transform laser scans of your mouth into custom-fit appliances for your teeth. But that’s a fraction of what the machine can do. When a 3D printer costs the same as, say, an HDTV, you will use one of your own to download all sorts of useful things, marvelling as it creates each item layer by layer from plastic, rubber, titanium – you name it. Just imagine your future self printing a birthday cake, a Rolex or a catalytic converter for the car. In time you’ll even be able to download prescription medicine.
- Drugs will be tested on “organ chips” that mimic the human body.
Now undergoing trials in 15 research institutions, the new silicon chips feature channels that house living kidney or lung cells, above. Simulated blood and oxygen flow allows them to mirror the actions of real organs, reducing the need for animal testing and speeding up drug development. In the midst of a pandemic, that would be crucial.
- Passwords will be obsolete.
IBM says it will happen within five years. Who are we to disagree? Apple and Google are designing face-recognition software for cellphones. DARPA is researching the dynamics of keystrokes. Others are looking into retinal scans, voiceprints and heartbeats. The big question, it seems, is what will you do with all that time you used to spend dreaming up new ways to say JZRulz24/7!
- Car tyres will be brewed by bacteria.
Isoprene – a key ingredient in rubber – is produced naturally by many plants but not at great enough volume to keep pace with the world’s demand for tyres. It can also be extracted from oil. But biotech firm Genencor has engineered E. coli microbes that produce gobs of the stuff as a by-product of metabolising plant sugars. Goodyear, a partner in the study, is already testing prototypes of these bio-isoprene tyres.
- Self-cleaning buildings will help us fight smog.
When sunlight strikes their aluminium skin, a titanium dioxide coating releases free radicals, which break down the grime and convert toxic nitrogen oxide molecules in the air into a harmless nitrate. Everything washes away
in the rain.
- Your clothes will clean themselves, too.
Engineers in China have developed a titanium dioxide coating that helps cotton shed stains and eliminate odour-producing bacteria. To revive your lucky shirt after a night of poker, you need only step into the sun.
- Drones will protect endangered species.
Guarding at-risk animals from poachers with foot patrols is expensive and dangerous. Recently, rangers in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park previewed a savvy solution: hand-launched drones armed with cameras and GPS provided aerial surveillance of threatened Indian rhinos. Could South Africa’s beleaguered rhino population benefit? Resources permitting, absolutely.
- Data will be measured in zettabytes.
According to the International Data Corporation, the volume of digital content created on the planet in 2010 exceeded a zettabyte for the first time in history. By the time we go to press, the annual figure is expected to reached 2,7 zettabytes. What exactly does a zettabyte look like? Well, if each byte were a grain of sand, the sum total would allow you to build 400 Hoover Dams.
- Rescuers will use electronic noses to locate disaster victims.
Some devices will use an array of sensors to rapidly detect carbon dioxide, ammonia and acetone released into the rubble via breath, sweat and skin. Others sniff out chemical compounds from human remains buried a metre underground. All keep working long after the dogs have retired to their kennels.
- Genetic testing will be used to halt epidemics.
A year ago, investigators at the National Human Genome Research Institute teamed with doctors in Maryland to track the outbreak of a deadly bacterial infection. The big breakthrough? Real-time genome sequencing, which helped them identify minute mutations in the microbe, determine how it spread, and quickly stop it.
- Vaccines will wipe out drug addiction.
The human immune system is supremely adept at detecting and neutralising foreign substances. Why not train it to target illicit ones? That’s the idea behind addiction vaccines: persuade the body to produce antibodies that shut down drug molecules before they get to the brain. The concept works in mice. Human trials are under way.
- Smart homes will itemise electric, water and gas bills by fixture and appliance.
Shwetak Patel, a 30-year-old MacArthur Fellow, is working on low-cost sensors that monitor electrical variations in power lines to detect each appliance’s signature. He has already used pressure changes to do the same for gas lines and water pipes. It’s up to you to pinpoint where the savings lie.
- Vegetarians and carnivores will dine together on synthetic meats.
We’re not talking about tofu. We’re talking about nutritious, low-cost substitutes that look and taste just like the real thing. Twitter co-founder Biz Stone has already invested in Beyond Meat, which makes plant-based chicken strips so convincing they almost fooled New York Times food writer Mark Bittman.
- 9 things that will disappear
› Video-game consoles
› Postage stamps
› C batteries
› Telephone poles
› Adhesive plasters
› Flathead screwdrivers
- 10 things that will remain the same
› Pocket knives
› Drill bits
› Charcoal grills
› Duct Tape
On the Horizon – 2023 to 2062
- Contact lenses will grant us Terminator vision.
When miniaturisation reaches its full potential, achieving superhuman eyesight will be as simple as placing a soft lens on your eye. Early prototypes feature wirelessly powered LEDs. But circuits and antennas can also be grafted on to flexible polymer, enabling zooming, night vision and visible data fields.
- Check-ups will be conducted by cellphone.
The technology is no problem. Scientists are hard at work trying to perfect apps that can measure your heart and respiration rates, perform blood and saliva tests – even evaluate your cough. Question is, how long will it take the medical industry to embrace them?
- All 130 million books on the planet will be digitised.
In 2010, Google planned to complete the job by decade’s end, but as of March this year it still had 110 million tomes to go, so we’re adding wiggle room. You might use the time to shop for storage, because given today’s options and the growing size of e-books, you’ll need a car boot full of 3-terabyte drives to carry the library of humanity with you. This would be weird, but kind of cool.
- Nurse Jackie will be a robot.
By 2045, when seniors (60-plus) outnumber the planet’s youth (15 and under) for the first time in history, hospitals will use robots to solve chronic staffing issues. Expect to find the new Nightingales lifting patients and pushing food carts. Engineers at Purdue University are thinking even bolder – designing mechanical scrub nurses that respond to hand gestures during surgery.
- Supersonic jets will return – for good, this time.
The limit on supersonic flight is not one of engineering but of economics. Aircraft that break the speed of sound guzzle fuel, so new jet engines will have to be efficient. One possible solution – the pulse detonation engine, which uses a fuel–air mixture – was tested at the Mojave Air and Space Port in 2008. By 2030, a successor will power that fabled 2-hour hop from New York to London.
- 10 sci-fi technologies that will arrive in the next 110 years
› The Knight Rider car
› Star Trek’s replicator
› Aliens’ power loader
› Dr Leonard McCoy’s tricorder
› Luke Skywalker’s robotic hand
› Men in Black’s neuraliser
› Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak
› Marty McFly’s hoverboard
› Neuromancer’s neural jack
› The Enterprise’s holodeck
- Your home will be truly connected
› The refrigerator will place your grocery order.
› The carpet will detect intruders and summon help if you fall.
› Lawn sensors will tell you which part of your yard to fertilise.
› The electric meter will monitor local power consumption and help you make full use of off-peak rates.
› The thermostat will learn your preferences and adjust the climate in each room as soon as you enter.
- The Super Bowl will be played on your living room carpet.
Not the real game, of course, but a 3D hologram of the action projected from your laptop or TV. Current technology allows the images, assembled from the footage of 16 cameras, to refresh every 2 seconds. One day, the halfback screen will unfold in real time.
- Highways will handle three times as many cars.
According to researchers at Columbia University, vehicles driven by humans use at best 5 per cent of a highway’s road surface at any given time. If we let technology take the wheel, we could significantly increase the volume of traffic. In one example, Volvo’s semi-autonomous road train wirelessly connects a stream of cars to a truck driven by a professional. The self-driving cars mimic the speed and steering of the lead vehicle, safely decreasing the gaps while increasing fuel efficiency.
- Farmers will grow caffeine-free coffee beans.
Taking caffeine out of coffee is no easy chemical feat, which is why decaf lacks the rich flavour of the high-test stuff. After years of research, Brazilian scientists have discovered a mutant strain of coffee that’s naturally low in caffeine. They won’t rest until they learn how to remove every last drop of the sleep-retarding stimulant.
- Supercomputers will be the size of sugar cubes.
The trick is to re-design the computer chip. Instead of the standard side-by-side model in use today, IBM researchers believe they can stack and link tomorrow’s chips via droplets of nanoparticle-infused liquid. This would eliminate wires and draw away heat. What it won’t do is help you remember where you left your tiny computer before you went to bed.
- A virtual lawyer will help you plan your estate.
“I don’t mean avatars,” Cisco’s Dave Evans says. “I mean virtual people – self-contained, thinking organisms indistinguishable from humans.” Sounds crazy, right? But surely you’ve seen the magic of CGI. What’s to say you can’t attach a lifelike visage to an interface fronting the crowd-sourced wisdom of the Internet? Give it a nice head of hair, teach it how to smile, and you’re looking at a brilliant legal eagle with awesome people skills.
- Vertical farms will feed cities.
There will be 9 billion people on the planet in 2050, seven out of 10 of them in urban areas, and everyone’s got to eat. Future food production will depend on farmscrapers that grow pesticide-free crops year-round, making it much simpler to eat local.
- Connecticut will feed the world.
To keep up with all the hungry mouths, we may just have to re-think food. The folks at tech start-up Pro-nutria claim to have discovered an industrious single-cell organism that converts sunlight, CO2 and water into low-cost nutrients. It works in tight quarters, too. Instead of a few thousand kilograms of crops per hectare a year, we’d be looking at 100 000, according to the company’s research. In other words, the planet’s protein could be produced in an area half the size of Connecticut.
- Scientists will discover direct evidence of dark matter.
It may account for the large majority of the mass in the Universe, but we haven’t confirmed that dark matter exists. Why? “It’s like a hidden magnet,” says Dr Fred Calef of the Mars Science Laboratory. “You can see what it pulls but can’t see the source.” Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku believes the proof we seek could arrive within 15 years, helping us to unlock the origins of our Universe, and maybe even open the door to another one.
- Navy SEALs will be able to hold their breath for 4 hours.
Advances in nanotechnology will help us overcome not only illness, but also the limits of being human. For example, robotic red blood cells called respirocytes could each hold 200 times the oxygen of their natural counterparts, enabling a man on a mission to, say, hide out under water for half a day without a scuba tank.
- The PM brain trust says:
› Within 20 years
The first fully functional brain-controlled bionic limb will arrive.
› Within 30 years
Soldiers will use exoskeletons to enhance battlefield performance.
› Within 40 years
Nanobots will perform medical procedures inside our bodies.
› Within 50 years
Doctors will successfully transplant a lab-grown human heart.
› Within 60 years
Digital data (texts, songs, etc) will be zapped directly into our brains.
- Tuna will be raised on farms
Ah, the bluefin – powerful, dangerous, graceful… and delicious served raw. Long reproduction cycles and a migratory lifestyle make it hard to tame, though. Pioneering fish farms in Mexico are now raising the species, fattening tons of fish in massive underwater pens. Similar efforts are under way in the US, Japan and the Mediterranean.
The Great Beyond
- Robots will rule the LV games!
China started hosting the Interna-tional Humanoid Robot Olympic Games in 2010, and inventor Dean Kamen is pushing for high-tech competitors in Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 2016. “The original Olympic skill sets were javelin throws, wrestling, and fighting skills that countries needed for defence,” he says. “In the 21st century, sports should require modern skills like programming and mechanical prowess.” We say let’s get started. By 2100, we hope to design the android version of Michael Phelps.
- The Pentagon will say goodbye to large submarines.
With the steady improvement in sonar technology, America’s subs are already hard-pressed to evade detection. In the future, underwater robots with laser radar or other non-acoustic sensors will make the seas virtually transparent. So how will the US deploy its nukes? Hypersonic missiles launched from America’s own shores will reach any target in the world within one hour.
- The PM brain trust says:
› Within 50 years
We will fly the friendly skies without pilots on board. And renewable energy sources will surpass fossil fuels in electricity generation.
› Within 60 years
We will activate the first fusion power plant. And we will wage the first battle in space.
› Within 100 years
The last petrol-powered car will come off the assembly line.
- People will grow their own homes.
The sustainable house of the future will be constructed from living, breathing trees coaxed into intricate patterns. The Fab Tree Hab, created by New York University’s Dr Mitchell Joachim, takes at least five years to rise to a full-size abode. After starting out on a farm, it can be transplanted to the address of your choice.
- An ion engine will reach the stars
If you’re thinking of making the trip to Alpha Centauri, pack plenty of snacks. At 42,5 trillion km, the voyage requires more than four years of travel at light speed, and you won’t be going nearly that fast. To complete the journey, you’ll have to rely on a scaled-up version of the engine on the Deep Space 1 probe, launched in 1998. Instead of liquid or solid fuel, the craft was propelled by ions of xenon gas accelerated by an electric field.
- Your body will be truly connected
› Doctors will check your vital signs around the clock via tiny sensors.
› Stomach chips will monitor your diet to help you lose weight.
› Spinal cord implants will reverse paralysis.
› Brain chips will let you absorb data while you sleep.
› Brain interfaces will help you fully inhabit virtual worlds.
- Scientists will map the quadrillion connections between the brain’s neurons.
Quadrillion sounds like a made-up number, but we assure you it’s real. Those connections hold the answers to questions about mental illness, learning, and the whole Nature versus nurture issue. If every one of them were a US penny, you could stack them and build a tower 1 550 million kilometres high. It would stretch past Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, and stop roughly halfway to Uranus.
- One of us will celebrate a 150th birthday.
Our money’s on Keith Richards. Given recent advances in health, technology and medicine, and the rise of genome science, it’s only a matter of time before someone gets to blow out all those candles – especially if you toss in a breakthrough on the scale of antibiotics, says David Ewing Duncan, author of When I’m 164. What are your odds of living to see our predictions come true? There are more than 300 000 centenarians on the globe already – and one hearty soul has reached the age of 122.