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18 Dec

Top 5 Tech Predictions That Came True in 2012

Google-glassIf you're fascinated with futurism, you're also familiar with the reality that a lot of predicted innovations, such the meal-in-a-pill and lunar hotels, either have yet to materialize--or else, in the case of paper clothing and flying cars, didn't really turn to be practical. 

But it's a mistake to assume that all predictions always turn out to be vaporware, because some seers turn out to be on the mark. Jules Verne's 1863 novel Paris in the Twentieth Century, for example, predicted automobiles with internal combustion engines and the fax machine.  Another futurist, civil engineer John Elfreth Watkins, made a list of predictions in 1900 that included digital color photography, mobile phones and high-speed trains.

My unscientific guess, in fact, is that most futurists' forecasts, if looked at decades later, turn out to be a combination of Fails and surprisingly astute guesses. Case in point: the developments envisioned by scientist A.M. Low in this 1927 Popular Science article. Sure, Low's prediction that we would be wearing one-piece suits made of synthetic felt, and that mass-produced breakfast would be delivered to us from some central kitchen via tube, seem a bit silly. And we don't have automobiles powered by wireless transmission of electricity. But Low did correctly predict that we would rely extensively upon synthetic materials that don't exist in nature, and that everyone would carry a "pocket radio" in his or her pocket (that's your iPhone and its 3G connection). And while cities don't yet have the moving sidewalks that Low envisioned, airports do (except that we call them "people movers") and we do hold business meetings and take college classes remotely via video.

In that spirit, here are five past predictions by futurists that actually came true in 2012. 

5. Augmented reality eyeglasses

Back in 2009, I wrote this blog post: "Imagine being able to download information from the Internet continuously and have it appear not on a computer screen or handheld device but on your eyeglasses or  contact lenses or perhaps to an artificial corneal implant, so that it would appear in your field of vision."  Google turns out to have had the same idea. This year, the Internet giant unveiled the prototype for Project Glass, a wireless PC embedded in a pair of eyeglasses, which it hopes to bring to market by 2014.

4. Private cargo spaceships

For decades, science fiction writers have imagined space freighters--basically, commercial spacefaring vessels that would haul needed stuff to space stations or outposts on distant worlds. As a teenager, for example, I remember reading Robert Heinlein's story "The Green Hills of Earth," which envisioned a future in which a wandering blind poet named Rhysling hitched rides across the cosmos on such cargo craft. Well, in 2012, we actually entered the era of private space cargo transport, when SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft delivered supplies to the International Space Station.

3. A world-class athlete with artificial body parts

Back in 1992, Dr. Jeffrey A. Fisher's book Our Medical Future predicted athletes being outfitted with replacement body parts, such as synthetic ligaments designed to give them more spring, and warned about the possibility that such prosthetics might unfairly enhance performance.  This year, we saw a double-amputee runner, Oscar Pistorius, not only competed for the first time in an Olympic event, but actually made it to the semifinals of the men's 400 meters--despite complaints by some that his carbon-fiber limbs might give him an unfair advantage. (From the Guardian, here's an opinion piece--interestingly, by another runner with a disability, Ben Rushgrove--that raises that point.

2. Anthropomorphic robot factory workers

In his 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), Czech playwright Karel Capek envisioned mechanical laborers who were modeled after humans and possessed artificial intelligence (and the capability to have emotions as an aftermarket accessory). Since then, we've actually seen industrial robots take over key jobs in automobile plants, but the gadgetry hasn't borne much resemblance to humans in form or behavior. But that may change with the advent of Baxter, a new $22,000 device that not only has human-like limbs and a head but is equipped with a face-like "user interface." Baxter is designed to work alongside humans and interact with them. It'll be intriguing to see whether it becomes a dues-paying union member.

1. The amphibious SUV

Practically since the automobile was invented, prognosticators have been dreaming of cars that could drive across bodies of water. (Here's an early attempt to develop an amphibious car, the 1908 Waterland.) But in 2012, we actually saw the debut of the Gibbs Phibian, which is a mash-up of an off-road diesel truck and a powerboat, with a super-strong, super-light carbon fiber body. Here's a blog post I wrote on the Phibian back in February, when its maker demonstrated the vehicle at a marina near Washington, DC. 

So what long-predicted inventions will finally emerge in 2013? Post your own predictions below.

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