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