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.