PM’s resident roboticist imagines new tech that will transform our lives. Now all we need is someone to invent it.
Much has changed since humankind fled the wilderness for civilised comforts, but one thing hasn’t: we still clean ourselves with water. Yet traditional showers take time, waste resources and don’t necessarily get the job done. Instead, we should take a lesson from doctors who sterilise surgical instruments through techniques such as high-pressure, high-temperature autoclaves, ethylene oxide gas and ultrasonic vibrations. Although these methods aren’t exactly “people-friendly,” a little research may enable modern humans to step out from under the indoor waterfall and give up the last of our caveman-like ways.
Acoustic cloaking shell
Long-term exposure to loud noise damages hearing and is associated with an increased risk of heart attack. So what if we were able to step into a portable sphere of pure silence? Imagine soundproofed homes perched next to freeways, expanded flight corridors for now-silent jets and quiet slices of heaven for people who work or live in noisy environments, such as city streets, construction sites or crowded coffee shops. Noise-cancelling headphones already exist; they use an external microphone to detect incoming noise and then generate sounds that are 180 degrees out of phase. The two sound waves cancel each other out – a phenomenon known as destructive interference – but the process only works for low-frequency sound. It’s a good start, but the real deal may be on the horizon. A recent article in the journal describes a theoretical material that could form a 3D “acoustic cloaking shell”, Sound travels through the material at different speeds, so that incoming noise bends around the object inside and continues on as if it weren’t there. Just imagine: with cheap, easily available silence, the world could finally calm down and hear itself think.
The world is complicated, and big decisions can be hard to make. Instead of trusting your own fallible human intuition, why not plug the variables of your life into a supercomputer and watch your fate unfold by the numbers? Advanced simulation software could generate a slew of parallel lives, each following a different fork in the road: where you live, which person you date or whether you adopt that Great Dane puppy. The US Army already uses tactical simulators to predict the outcome of battles and to fine-tune supply-chain logistics. Now, researchers at the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California are working on the Intelligent Forces project, with the goal of simulating the behaviour of civilian populations – and insurgent forces – on a citywide scale. If the combat shifts from Baghdad to Darfur, researchers can even plug in different cultures. Predicting the outcomes that stem from whether you ask for that raise, buy that house or quit your job for a career in animal husbandry should be easy in comparison.
In the coming decades, this type of technology could be used by urban planners, video-game designers and maybe even indecisive civilians who face tough life decisions.
Kids’ knees and noggins can be protected with padding and helmets – but how do we safeguard their delicate minds? The answer may lie with Augmented Reality (AR), a technology that combines sights and sounds of the real world with virtual information. AR eyeglasses could detect inappropriate sights and remove them from view, while AR-enabled earbuds would delete ambient cursing. Meanwhile, adults might wear glasses that substitute blessed blank space for roadside billboards, television commercials and the annoying corporate names on most stadiums. Professor Jie Yang of the interACT research centre at Carnegie Mellon University recently laid the groundwork for this technology. His prototype digital camera picks out street signs and billboards from a scene and translates their text to another language. Next on his to-do list, we hope: figuring out a way to translate obnoxious on-hold music into songs we actually like.
Humans invented the wheel; Mother Nature invented legs. It was only a matter of time before we realised her design was better. The product of this epiphany?
A wheelchair that can walk. Developed by Toyota, the “i-foot” prototype is a 3 m bipedal throne that ambles, kneels and climbs stairs on backward-bending, ostrichlike legs. But let’s not stop there. Picture a world of legged beds, couches and tables. People could downsize their houses to only two rooms: a storage room that holds the furniture and a main room that shifts to become whichever space is needed. Want a living room? Have the couch and coffee table walk over. Need a beer? Call the refrigerator. Feel free to mix and match: take a bath while watching television, or cook dinner while using the treadmill. Anything is possible in the legged home of the future!
A professor at the University of California San Diego recently explained the inexorable physical principles that govern the tendency of everything from rope to proteins, even DNA, to form knots. But science trumps Nature. Materials called electroactive polymers change shape when supplied with electric voltage. Cables constructed with cleverly integrated electro-active polymer components could lead to headphones that don’t tangle, as well as to self-straightening extension cords and garden hoses. Added bonus: fast holiday decorating. You’ll never have to hunch over a hopeless mass of Christmas lights again.
Insect force field
Insects are important for healthy ecosystems, but they also ruin crops, spread disease and occasionally bite your neck – ouch. Clearly, humankind needs a portable device capable of protecting an area from all six-legged critters. An insect force field would allow hikers to wear what they want, sleep outside the tent and come back for a dropped chocolate bar an hour later and find it whole. Harmful pesticides and superfluous food packaging would be a thing of the past – so would Lyme disease and West Nile virus. Sadly, current technology is lacking: researchers consider ultrasonic pest-control devices useless, and bug zappers – although fun to watch – kill the good insects with the bad.
Ever had your iPod or camera stolen? The time is ripe for microscopic tags that can be permanently implanted into in-animate objects, so they can be tracked to whichever house or pawn shop they end up in. Well, prepare for greater peace of mind: with a megatracking system in place, people will think twice before walking off with your umbrella, and airlines will always know exactly where your luggage has landed. Technology is almost up to the task. Radiofrequency identification (RFID) readers can detect button-sized tags from 10 metres – even through walls. There is a compromise, of course: your privacy. If you can track all of your possessions, chances are good that corporations, governments and tech-savvy criminals can, too.
Is it worth it? Maybe not. But it’d be pretty great to go swimming without having to hide your cellphone in your shoe.
Cars have it, so why not kids? In the USA, GM’s OnStar system is a computer that monitors car diagnostics such as engine temperature, tyre pressure and whether the airbags have deployed. When there’s an accident, the system uses a b