Future Tech: Predictions answered definitively

We were promised a variety of future tech, most of which have failed to hit the shelves. So, what ever happened to flying cars and teleportation? Answers please...

Science fiction writers and Hollywood have long promised a brave new world where all the huge possibilities of tech are manifest. Problem is, the bureaucracy and cashflow problems of real life never seem to keep pace with the mind.

 

We've investigated the ten most important inventions yet to take flight to find out what happened to the future we were promised. Now, where the hell are our flying cars?

 

When will we see flying cars?

What's the big idea?

Where the automobile is going, we don't need roads - at least not all the time. Designs for flying cars have been trying (and failing) to take off for decades, but from next year, you'll be able to buy your own for around £160,000.

What's happening?

The current frontrunner in the race for the skies is US firm Terrafugia. It describes its vehicle, the Transition, more as a 'roadable aircraft' than a flying car. Looking a bit like a winged Reliant Robin, the Transition cruises at 93kts (105mph) and upon landing, its 8m wings fold up to be stowed at the side of the vehicle.

Classed as a light sports aircraft across the pond, the idea is that you drive it home straight from the airport. To do that from Stansted or any other UK airport, the vehicle will first need a Certificate of Airworthiness. “All new aircraft designs have to be approved by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) for operation within the EU,” says Richard Taylor, a spokesman for the UK's Civil Aviation Authority.

What's the hold up?

Assuming the Transition or any other flying car meets all of the technical requirements for flight, we'd still need a monumental shake-up of the way the skies are policed before we could all travel to work in one. “The Rules of the Air, essentially the highway code for aviation, states that aircraft are not allowed to fly within 1,000ft of the highest fixed point in an urban settlement or within 500ft of a person, vehicle or structure in open countryside. The ability of a flying car to safely ‘see and avoid’ other aircraft and abide by the Rules of the Air have to be seriously questioned.”

When could it happen?

The technology is ready to go, but it's going to be stuck in a holding pattern until at least mid-century before anyone lands a flying car at home.

Timeline: 2050

 

 

Transatlantic tunnel travel

What's the big idea?

Breakfast in Waterloo followed by lunch in Times Square, thanks to bullet train that crosses the length of the Atlantic Ocean in a gigantic undersea tunnel. The concept dates back to Jules Verne's day, but now engineers say there are no technological barriers left to prevent it from being built.

What's happening right now?

For now, the project remains a (3000-mile-long) pipe dream. Even so, some engineers have proposed a flexible 'floating' tunnel submerged 50m under the sea and anchored to the sea floor. This would avoid the ships and storms on the surface and the immense pressure found on the bottom. To build it, we'd need time and money says Bob Idell, chair of the British Tunneling Society. “With today’s technology and costs, a fair guesstimate would be that we could probably tunnel a distance of 100m per week on average, at an approximate cost of £50m per km.”

What's the hold up?

“The distances involved make everything very complicated - from machinery servicing to getting power and ventilation to the site - and currently we don’t have financially practical solutions for these problems.” Aside from placing a construction site thousands of miles from land, Idell thinks the greatest obstacle is demand. Aircraft don't do a bad job of crossing the Atlantic and proposed scramjet technology could cut the journey to 2-3 hours.

When could we see it?

Given unprecedented financial and political backing, a tunnel could be started this decade. But hypersonic passenger planes in the future are likely to sink the idea to the ocean floor.

Timeline: 2020

 

 

Teleportation

What's the big idea?

Travel, Jim, but not as we know it. Teleportation would involve technology that grabs hold of every atom in your body, transports them through space and reassembles them exactly as they were in a new location. Like lightspeed and Princess Leia's gold bikini, it's one of science fiction's most tantalizing promises. But incredibly, researchers have already achieved it in the lab ...sort of.

What's happening right now?

Scientists have yet to beam themselves (or any other atoms) from one place to another. What they have done is beam information. It's called quantum teleportation, and exploits the freaky world of quantum mechanics. “A particle does not disappear in one place and reappear in another, as on Star Trek,” explains Professor Benjamin Schumacher. A physicist at Kenyon College in Ohio, he reviewed a Chinese research paper last year in which information was teleported 10 miles from one photon of light to another. “The properties of one particle are wiped out and transferred to another particle some distance away.”

This is where things get weird. There is no 'signal' between the two particles, no cosmic Wi-Fi - at least none that we know about. Instead, the two particles are 'entangled' and when you manipulate one, the same effect instantly occurs on the second even though it's in another lab 10 miles down the road. “All of the work has been done via this weird pre-existing connection,” Schumacher says.

Teleportation of a few photons is not, by itself, very useful. But it is closely linked to real technologies, like quantum cryptography and quantum computing. “Information that is teleported from place to place cannot be intercepted by any eavesdropper. It's a way to create perfectly secret communication.” Quantum computing, meanwhile, will revolutionise the speed at which computers work, allowing them to make calculations in minutes that would take years with today's technology.

What's the hold-up?

“Right now we can do quantum teleportation over distances of 10-20km in free space. I expect this distance to increase by a couple of orders of magnitude in the next decade or two,” says Schumacher. The bigger hold-up may be economic. Quantum cryptology is significantly more expensive than a briefcase handcuffed to a big man with a gun.

But what about the tantalizing idea that quantum teleportation could one day be scaled up to work with an object made of a billion billion billion atoms ...such as you? It wouldn't transport the atoms themselves but all the information stored inside them – an atomic blueprint of 'you' - and transport it into a reservoir of entangled matter roughly your size in another location. “The transmitter would acquire a gigantic amount of information in the process - a quadrillion gigabytes is a low estimate,” Schumacher says. He adds that the entanglement process would also “kill you very thoroughly.”

When could we see it?

Companies selling quantum cryptology already exist, while quantum computers are four or five decades away. Trekkie-style teleportation doesn't strictly break the laws of the Universe but, short of a monumental discovery in physics, you won't be beaming anywhere in the forseeable future.

Timeline: 2060

 

 

Invisibility cloaks

What's the big idea?

In a world where everyone has something to hide, the ability to make something disappear completely is too good to pass up. Scientists are playing with ways of bending rays of light around an object using materials that change the speed and direction that light travels when it hits them. Watching closely are, of course, the military, who could use the materials in high-tech camouflage for soldiers or armoured vehicles.

What's happening right now?

Cloaking devices already exist. It's just that up until recently, they have only worked with objects about a tenth of the width of a human hair – something nobody could see anyway. But this year, research led by scientists at the University of Birmingham, made a paperclip vanish using a prism made from a naturally-occurring crystal called calcite. “The cloak is designed in such a way that it bends light around a bump on the surface without being scattered by it. So anything hidden underneath it cannot be seen,” explains lead researcher Dr Shuang Zhang.

What's in the way of the future?

The crystal cloak is currently about 20 times larger than the object it's concealing, although calcite crystals do exist that are big enough to hide a human body. “Metamaterials offer a much larger parameter range than crystals, which means they could be used to design a much more compact invisibility cloak relative to the size of the object being concealed,” Zhang says. Currently, however, most of the technology demonstrated has been with wavelengths of light outside the spectrum visible to humans.

When could we see it?

Metamaterials that work with visible light should appear within five years. Scaling it up for a high-tech game of hide-and-seek beneath haute Potteur will take decades.

Timeline: 2016

 

 

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