How Sci-Fi Becomes Reality - Part 1

Looking at some of the most cutting edge technologies currently in development which will change the way we look at the world.

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    We are currently living in a fascinating age of scientific development. With such rapidity the world around us has changed considerably. In as little as the twelve years since this century began, the advances driven by development of computer technologies alone have been astounding.

    Computers really have been the major driving force of the information age, becoming ever more advanced, allowing us to incorporate them into a wider range of tasks, speeding up research, and allowing innovators to use them in ways previously only dreamt of in the realm of science fiction. The mobile boom really has allowed technology to go into hyper drive with mobiles – once large cumbersome analog deviceses, and now sleek miniature advanced computer - becoming the most sought after fashion accessory and communication tool on the planet. In Africa more people have access to mobile phones than clean drinking water. The jump has taken even the most hardened technology gurus by surprise, but has proven just how much consumers drive global advances. The table below, of a top end PC from 2000 compared to the new Samsung Galaxy S3 mobile phone, indicated advances predicted by Moore’s Law.:

    Specification Samsung Galaxy S3 (2012) Gateway computer (2000)
    Processor 1.4Ghz (quad core) 800Mhz (0.8Ghz)
    Storage 16Gb solid state 10Gb IDE
    Display 1280×720 (720p) 1280×720 (720p)
    RAM 2Gb 128Mb
    Size 83 cubic centimeters 25000 cubic centimeters

    The graph by renowned futurist Ray Kurzweil  below depicts the progress in calculations per second over time. Kurzweil adapts the trend to include not just the progress regarding integrated circuits from the 1980′s onwards, as predicted by Moore’s Law, but he goes back in time to include earlier transistors, vacuum tubes, relays and the electromechanical computer. Does it look to you like the line of progress in curving upwards?

    Futurist Ray Kurzweil extends Moore's law from integrated circuits in the ate 80's all the way back to earlier transistors, vacuum tubes, relays and the electromechanical computer. Progress here seems steady over a century. via Wikipedia.

    With continued advances more innovative technologies continue to develop which hark back to fiction, but will soon be a reality. We really are living in a very interesting age with much of the world changing rapidly around us so what does the next twelve years have instore for us? In this series I am going to be looking at some of the most cutting edge technologies currently in development which will change the way we look at the world. Following the development of the autonomous car, as it reinvents the way we view travelling; optical camouflage, being able to view a person’s thoughts, creating new ways of analysing mental health disorders; stepping into deep and engaging virtual reality worlds allowing a new realm of exploration; these are just a few of the multiplicity of ground break ideas being developed. what may surprise you is just how far some of these technologies are becoming already.

    image from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mobile_phones.svg

    In this first part I will be focusing on Autonomous cars and Optical camouflage to see how they have developed, which will inevitable change the world for everyone not only within their direct developments but in the spin off technologies which will get developed parallel to them opening new and interesting fields of research to further develop the world.

    Autonomous cars

    For anyone who has ever had to commute to work the doldrum of the fabled traffic jam is more than just a mild irritation, especially if your commute involved similar jams and bad drivers every single working day making the working day as a whole such a grind starting an hour or so before you even clock on. Rolling out of bed in the early hours of the morning is never a fun ordeal, always trying to savor the last couple of minutes of warm comfort before being dragged into the harsh realities of a cold and icy dark winter morning. What would you give to effectively eliminate the commute. Well autonomous cars could very well be the answer to this age old problem of early morning stress, freeing up time in the working day. It may surprise you just how close we are to achieving this goal.

    Automomous Toyota Prius. Image via Flickr.com / scottschrantz

    Already Nevada has issued licences for autonomous cars providing they reach certain specifications outlined in the law and have two people in the car at all times. The first of these self-driven cars is a modified Toyota Prius which contains brakes and accelerator connected to computers, GPS, artificial intelligence systems, laser radar and a vast database; all honing the effectiveness of the cars ability to drive unaided. Of course as this is still the early stages of this type of automobiles development the state government has put into place rules of having one driver in the driving seat and another to monitor all the systems, however after extensive testing there has been no evidence to prove that these cars would be any hazard on the road.

    With other states in the USA already considering allowing this technology in it shows a very promising future for development. Over time I have no doubt the rules will alter to allow the cars to become completely self-driven totally changing the way we view long journeys and commutes, making them all the more pleasurable. Of course the knock on effects for road safety will be huge as with computers doing all the work, each Country will be able to enforce speed rules along with the entire highway code consistently which leads to much safer roads for everyone concerned. The haulage industry would see huge rises in efficiency as the computers do not get tired and the previous drivers of these companies would need to become technicians for the computers, as the dynamic of their roles totally change.

    Optical camouflage

    A common idea in much of science fiction is that of cloaking devices. From individual body parts to  ships the size of small countries. This idea comes up a lot int the sci-fi anals; and for good reason. As far as warfare is concerned, this is somewhat of the holy grail. It would allow complete surprise in attacks, and have equal defensive merits when avoiding conflict. This technology could potentially eliminate much blood shed in conflict – if used correctly of course. And as it turns out the technology for this really may no longer only exist in the realm of science fiction.

    Ptolemy II's switching on its optical camouflage. From The Gundam Anime.

    The overall premise for the idea is very simple. We view the world around us by the reflection and refraction of light from surfaces. Different colours are merely created by the surfaces absorbing parts of the spectrum whilst allowing the rest to reflect back to the observer’s eye (or capture device), allowing the brain to generate the image. So by creating a surface which would absorb or refract the light away from the observer it will render the object invisible to the observer. The idea of refraction works for a single source or sources setup in specific sweat spots however for a more encompassing effect the use of absorption would have to be implemented to realistically create an effective cloaking device.

    Image via iopscience.iop.org

    The first experiment showing that cloaking a 3-D object was viable was surprisingly only carried out at the start of this year. The experiment used microwaves along with what is known as a plasmonic material which presents a photo negative of the object to be cloaked allowing for the waves to be cancelled out allowing the object to be concealed. Over the year it appears much research has been done on the idea of cloaking and the advances seem quite vast coming from only using microwaves and metamaterials (artificial materials with specific properties to hide the object) to using calcite (a common crystalline material) which achieves cloaking by sending the two polarisations of light directions (the way the light wave oscillates) in different directions to cancel out the light. The Calcite method is thought to allow for more scalability as the material is common and thus easy to acquire thus a potential route to advance this technology even more.

    The latest breakthrough of cloaking comes from “trapping a rainbow”, which is a very elegant way to phrase the slowing of light to an almost stand still. The method was to coat an array with a thin film of gold placed above a flat, gold-coated sheet of glass. The light was shone from the side aimed between the two sheets, guided around each tiny len thus creating a small cloaked region in the centre of each lens. The array of lenses was used to slow the light down, similarly to a prism meaning that the light would spread out into its constituent colours across the surface.

    The quest for creating a sustainable commercially viable cloaking device has brought up much innovation in the ways we interact and manipulate light which in its own right has brought up other avenues of research with these techniques from explosive detection to blood analysis there is no doubt this technology is very useful all around society unlocking whole other avenues to research. Although creating a personal cloaking device is still technology of the future, there is no doubt the development of this technology is developing at present at a rather accelerated rate and who will know what the end result will be or even what we will see in the next twelve years.

    These are just the first two technologies which I will be looking over, my next article will attempt to probe even more further afield staring out into space to explore the development of off planet mining and the benefits it can bring the world as a whole; the idea of the elixir of eternal life stretching human life right to its limits; and the creation of rich lush virtual environments to rival what we see in reality unlocking new environments to explore and methods of future training.