Future Tech: Predictions answered definitively

So, when will we see an invisibility cloak?

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

title: Future Tech Predictions Part 2 / url: Future-Tech-Predictions-Part-2

Future Tech Predictions Part 2

Clean energy for everyone

What's the big idea?

Keeping the lights on, quite frankly. And doing it without wrecking the environment. As the economies around oil become less and less stable and politicians fret about nuclear power in the wake of Japan, the imperative for clean, affordable energy - and lots of it - becomes ever more critical. Will renewables ever be up to the job or is there a silver bullet waiting in the future?

What's happening now?

The fierce, heavily politicised debate rumbles on while scientists tinker with a raft of technologies, old and new. Currently, renewables make up less than 2% of the UK energy mix. “The EU has given us a target of increasing that to 15% by 2020,” says Professor Jim Skea, research director at the UK Energy Research Centre. “The critical thing is bringing the cost down for wind and solar, otherwise they are proven, mature technologies that we will see incremental advances in as time goes by.” Also emerging are things like carbon capture and storage, a means of trapping CO2 emmissions as they're released from coal-fired power stations.

This would be a viable mid-term option, along with nuclear, providing us with stable energy until renewables make a larger contribution. Meanwhile, in the lab, scientists are experimenting with new, potentially game-changing ways of producing energy. Crops of algae offer biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuels, albeit not a zero-carbon one. And physicists are hoping to recreate the conditions found at the centre of the sun by training high-powered lasers at a tiny pellet of hydrogen, hopefully triggering a fusion reaction.

What's the hold-up?

The economics of energy mean that quickly ramping up our reliance on renewables is unlikely. “We’ve been through an era of cheap fossil fuels and haven’t really put an economic cost on greenhouse gas emissions,” says Skea. “Against that background renewables have simply been expensive.” Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet waiting in the lab. Instead future energy will be underpinned by advances in more basic science. “For example, advances in genomics will give us a better understanding of how to breed more efficient and drought-resistant energy crops. Meanwhile materials science and nanotechnology will make progress possible in photovoltaic cells and battery technology.”

When will we see it?

An optimist might say we'll be able to power the planet on clean, sustainable sources by the middle of the century. “We've come to the end of conventional, cheap oil effectively, but there are lots of other hydrocarbons out there,” says Skea. “Frankly, it's now a choice for the human race: do we go on burning hydrocarbons or do we want to switch to low-carbon technologies that have less implications for climate change?”

Timeline: 2050

Holodeck simulations

What are holodeck simulations

Imagine combining the technology in Kinect, Second Life and immersive 3D displays. That's virtual reality, and it's so close you could almost reach out and touch it.

What's happening right now?

Researchers are already hacking Kinect and using it in lab-based VR. “Recently we did a virtual reality demonstration for an acting rehearsal,” says Mel Slater, professor of virtual environments at University College London. “One actor was in London, the other was in Barcelona.” Elsewhere, the Parachute Training School at RAF Brize Norton recently opened a training simulator in which crewmen wearing VR goggles practise jumps from the safety of a mocked-up harness.
In the near future, you could be feeding a ball through to Lionel Messi on a virtual pitch or (actually) ducking bullets in a (genuine) first-person shooter. Beyond gaming, there are applications in virtual tourism and video conferencing - not to mention long-distance relationships.

What's the hold up?

There isn't one, really. Although the first virtual reality 'caves' are not likely to be much like the holo-deck from Star Trek. “The biggest hurdle left is haptics [referring to a sense of touch]. Right now in VR you can set things up to get some kind of haptic feedback on your fingertips or you wear a special suit or accessory but it's not very compelling. If you're in a virtual space and your elbow accidentally brushes against something, you feel nothing.” Maybe hold fire on that long-distance relationship.

When could we see it?

Slater says that with investment, the first immersive VR destinations will be accepting visitors in three to five years. Getting a grope while you're in there is going to take decades.

Timeline: 2018

Robots entering the home

What's the big idea?

Roomba writ large. By the middle of this century, our ageing population will have grown to the extent that one in four Brits will be over the age of 65 (compared with one in six today). Some researchers believe that we'll have no choice but to turn to synthetic hands when it comes to looking after the frail. And it's not just the elderly: schoolchildren could be taught by robot teachers, while the lonely and the horny could get their kicks from a burgeoning market for sexbots.

What's happening now?

The uprising has already begun. Droids designed for small, targeted tasks are rolling out of the lab all the time. A robot pharmacist that sorts drug prescriptions in UK hospitals has cut the time it takes to dispense drugs to waiting patients in half. Others have been designed to help autistic children understand emotions or keep the elderly company. But a crucial body of research is also looking at how robots can interact safely with us, their flesh-and-blood overlords.

Alexander Lenz works at the Bristol Robotics Lab on a project called CHRIS (Cooperative Human Robot Interaction Systems). “Making the transition from robots that are kept separate from us because they are big and powerful to those that operate alongside us is not easy,” he explains. “There are many issues in terms of behaviour. For example, one of our projects at the moment is eye gaze. If I talk to a robot and say, 'I like that', is the robot able to follow my gaze and realise what I mean?”

What's the hold up?

True autonomous are fiddly things. Lenz and other roboticists have a thousand little things to perfect before we see anything approaching C3PO.

“Visual recognition is still a problem,” says Lenz, by way of example. “How do we make robots recognise that an object sat on a table is separate from the table, and that it's something you can touch and move?”

There's also a question of economic practicality. “Let's say I have a household robot that serves me my food and tidies up my kitchen. Probably that robot would only be used two hours a day, perhaps in the morning and again when I get home from work. Yet it's going to cost me about as much as a car.” In other words, you may be happy to load the dishwasher yourself.

When could we see it?

Robots designed for a specific function, such as surgery, will be rolled out from now onwards. “I think we will see robots in more structured environments, assisting on a building site or serving food to patients in a hospital,” Lenz says. Your all-singing, all-dancing mechanised house servant won't be ready for decades. Sorry.

title: Future Tech Predictions Part 3 / url: Future-Tech-Predictions-Part-3

Future Tech Predictions Part 3

Driverless cars

What's the big idea?

No offence, but you're a dangerous driver. You jump red lights, break speed limits and you do these things because, well, you're just a human being. As such, we could face a driving ban in the not-too-distant future, replaced on the road by KIT-style cars that drive themselves. According to engineers building autonomous autos, they will save on traffic, fuel efficiency and the one million lives lost in road accidents each year.

What's happening right now?

Production cars already have autonomous windscreen wipers or braking systems that kick in when the car's onboard sensors detect an imminent crash. Autonomous parking is just around the bend, but in fact, true autonomous cars are already driving among us.

Last year Google admitted that its driverless cars, six Toyota Priuses and an Audi TT, have navigated some 140,000 miles around San Francisco using a combination of video systems, radar and GPS to stay away from other traffic and locate themselves on maps. Similar technology is found on the MIG (MadeinGermany), a Volkswagen Passat, developed at the Free University in Berlin and decked out with extras such as heat sensors and laser scanners. Its designer, Professor Raul Rojas says that we won't need to rebuild our traffic systems to accommodate such vehicles.

“Traffic lights could be standardized or be provided with radio transmitters. Other than that, the infrastructure does not have to be changed,” Rojas says. “That way the changes would be minimal.”

What's in the way of the future?

“The main technological barrier is recognizing people on the streets,” Rojas says. “People are unpredictable. While you can read what a pedestrian intends to do, because of their posture, their gaze direction or because you make eye contact, that's all too difficult for a computer.” The next roadblock is legal. Who is liable when something goes wrong? Who pays the insurance – you or the manufacturer? “Until this is solved you will only see autonomous cars in private roads or closed environments such as airports,” Rojas says. Finally, there's a psychological barrier: some people like driving. Prising Clarkson's fingers from the wheel of his Lamborghini will take a brave man.

When could we see it?

“In the next 10 years we will see autonomous cars in closed environments such as airports, factories and national parks,” says Rojas. “Systems for semi-autonomous navigation on the highway should be available in 15 years. Autonomy on the streets will take longer 20-30 years, until the legal issues are sorted out.”

Timeline: 2035

Food in a pill

What's the big idea?

The ultimate fast food: all the nutrients your body needs packed into one little tablet. It would be ideal chow for astronauts or front-line soldiers and in fact, back in 2004, the US military was reportedly working on a project called Metabolic Dominance. It sought ways of maintaining battlefield performance for up to five days without taking in any 'traditional' calories.

What's happening now?

Metabolic Dominance has gone quiet - possibly through malnutrition because there is a question over the extent to which you could function eating pills for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In 2008, Spanish researchers concluded that so-called nutraceuticals – nutritional supplements packed with the raw chemicals found in foods – could not deliver the same health benefits as the real thing.

Nevertheless, food engineering is on the brink of something huge – or rather, something very, very tiny. According to a parliamentary report, nanotechnology in food will be worth $5.6bn in 2012. That's right, scientists are tinkering with your Corn Flakes at the atomic level.

“You can design foods to enhance their health-giving properties,” says Professor Vic Morris, who studies nanofoods at the Institute of Food Technologies. “You could engineer it to be less fatty without changing its texture or design foods that reduce your risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes.” Best of all, you could do this with virtually anything you eat. A double bacon cheeseburger could one day lower your cholesterol, the side of fries it comes with cutting your body's absorption of fat. “With nanotechnology, you manipulate the very small containers that hold the active nutrients and deliver them to the body,” Morris explains. “And you can do this with almost any food.”

What's the hold-up?

The technology is more or less there, Morris says, and at least one major food company, Unilever, has admitted that it is watching the science closely. But regulation is way behind. Food technologists are terrified of the kind of Frankenstein food scares that resulted when GM foods were not properly explained to the public asked to gobble them down. Part of that means ensuring that there really are no adverse health effects.

“One of the concerns is about whether the particles actually stay in the body” Morris says. “Nanoparticles would be small enough to get into your body's cells. And a small number of them, including silver, are antimicrobial, so we don't know what would happen if they got into cells and what they'd do to DNA. Can they damage it?”

When could we see it?

Studies that investigate the long-term effects of nanofoods are likely to begin very soon. But the first nanofoods will likely enter the supermarket within the decade, Morris says, although whether they'll actually be labelled as such remains to be seen. “Products sold specifically to cut your risk of cancer may be 50 or 60 years away from the market, simply because we'd first need big clinical trials to prove they actually work in humans,” he says.

Timeline: 2020

Smart pills

What's the big idea?

To feed the mind, quite literally. Drugs are emerging that have a proven impact on your intellect, manipulating hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain to improve memory, verbal fluency and concentration. Also emerging is a willingness to pop these smart pills to increase your exam grades or give a better presentation.

What's happening right now?

Prescription drugs like Aderall and Modafinil, which have been shown to have positive cognitive effects can now be purchased on the internet. “I know academics who use them to beat jet lag,” says Professor Barbara Sahakian, who studies the drugs at Cambridge. “In the UK, an informal survey found that 10% of students were also using cognitive enhancing drugs.” There seems to be a strangely relaxed attitude towards them. But since there is no way of knowing exactly what drugs you're getting online, Sahakian thinks that before they become legitimised, Big Pharma has to prove there are no long-term medical consequences.

What's the hold up?

There are no long-term studies on what smart pills do if taken regularly, but the biggest questions are ethical, not medical. “A <Nature> survey found that most people believed you shouldn't give these drugs to children,” Sahakian says. “Nevertheless, 30% said they would feel coerced to give them to their own children if they knew that everyone else in their class was taking them.” If you got a job on the back of a smart pill, would you be required to keep taking them?

When could we see it?

New drugs are already being designed, but you're not likely to see conversational Mandarin ever come in pill form (although if brain-computer interfaces take off, you might be able to download it). However, Sahakian thinks a pharmacy shelf that contains pills for numeracy, creativity or attention is possible in the coming decades. “We have an ageing population. People might have to keep working for longer because the retirement age is being increased and pensions aren't performing as well as we'd like. It could actually give us a competitive advantage.”

Timeline: 2025