Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Future Is Now

I can't say that I'm the most scientifically knowledgeable individual--my physics grades in high school can attest to that--but I've always held a fascination about the speculation of our future. I love reading about different fuels our cars will use, or the advances the military has made in various endeavors, lethal or no.* While I find most technical magazines fail to enlighten me, popular (i.e., dumbed-down) sources such as Coast to Coast AM** and newsmagazines help fill the void.

And so, looking at the latest issue of The Economist, they have an insert about just that--innovations that are currently wavering between theory and practice. (They have a Technology Quarterly section, of which the latest was just released.) Here are a few of the highlights--though note that I am basically providing a simplified summary of a magazine article that is already a simplified summary:

Enhanced Cameras: Cameras that take multiple pictures at different angles, then use computer animation to make one big "super" picture. Since many standard pictures suffer loss of lighting in at least one dimension, these photos will always provide an extraordinarily-lit and highly details still. It also lets you change focus after the fact.

Advances in Game Theory: A pet interest of mine, most people are familiar with game theory mostly through the Academy-Award winning movie A Beautiful Mind. Economists and mathematicians have created game theory frameworks for years, but advances in computing technology have made it much more accurate. (Game theory, for those who don't know, is the science of creating "games"--basically, decision-making matrices with varying payoffs based not only on what you choose but what your rivals choose. Google "prisoner's dilemma" for the most famous example.) Game theorists have gotten to the point where they can accurately predict when governments will be overthrown, government-sale auctions will be determined, or wars will start.

Artificial Muscles: The science of making artificial muscles--they are exactly what you think they are--has become so efficient that they may replace conventional electric motors. These muscles are significantly more efficient, and can be much smaller and lighter than conventional engines--which can have a huge difference in many applications. The biggest roadblock was getting a muscle to make a true rotary motion, which has been accomplished. While they will always be used for the purposes of artificial limbs, new applications are being formed every day.

Thought Control: New ideas about using thoughts alone to control things, namely electronics, have been introduced. Of course, while many are suspicious, forms of it have been around for a while (such as lie detector tests). But now, games and applications are being developed where the outcome is based on your thoughts alone--no actual mechanical or electronic input required. (These games/applications range from such subjects as disaster-response scenarios to job interviews to dating sites.) Prices are tumbling and readings are becoming more accurate, but they aren't quite at the mass-produced scale yet. Expect a lot of hand-wringing and worry as applications become more...diverse.

Fusion Power: Long the darling of futurists and scam artists, fusion power is the El Dorado of scientists. He who develops it will unlock a world-changing phenomena--a world of limited power. Unless fission, which is what our current standard nuclear power plants rely on, fusion power leaves only trace amounts of radioactivity and can use nearly any material as fuel--doubling as a waste reducer as well as an energy provider. A reactor being built in Germany is the closest scientists have come yet to cracking this. It's still a long ways away from fruition, but reading the article makes one awfully optimistic.

There are plenty of other new developments of a more practical matter--ridiculously versatile ID scanners, remarkably efficient cancer drugs, and desalination techniques--are not nearly as sexy but are quite important. Granted, the Economist, as well as other outlets, have a tendency to oversell new scientific discoveries; drawbacks abound, and most of these are barely out of the theoretical stage. Still, sometimes looking at the future isn't so bad.

*Extrapolating this to history--which I suppose is the exact opposite of the future I'm envisioning--The entire story of the Manhattan project is equal parts scary and illuminating--it was like taking twenty years of research and doing it in, like, two years. It sometimes makes me wonder if today's theoretical scientists should just get on the stick and give it a try, though I suppose the folks in Geneva are doing just that.
**Laugh, but they often have legit scientists talking about what the future is likely to bring. While I love the werewolves and Kirilians, these scientist shows are by far my favorite.

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