Science Channel - InSCIder

1 Jan

Predictions by Tesla, Verne and others that may come true in 2013

Tesla-350x210As a long time blogger for the Science Channel, I cover a bizarre beat: Technological extremes, outlandish notions, controversial proposals and sheer "what if" speculation, from creating human-animal hybrids and building a space elevator to the idea of floating aquatic cities as a way to deal with climate change. A lot of the crazy stuff that I write about has actually been advocated or even developed by visionary technologists. But on slow days, I sometimes have no choice but to pretend to be a low-rent reincarnation of late 19th-early 20th Century inventor Nikola Tesla, and induce a few hallucinatory daydreams of my own, from giant ant farms (with giant ants) to continuously recording everything that happens on the Earth and uploading it to YouTube. Granted, I've yet to come up with anything as brilliant--or as wacky--as the venerable Serbian.

That's why I'm turning over this blog over to venerable futurists: Tesla, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Philip K. Dick. Instead of my own lame predictions, let's look at five predictions that they made, which might possibly come true in 2013 or soon after.

1. Mind pictures

Tesla envisioned a gadget that would capture the ideas in his mind and project them as pictures. University of California, Berkeley researchers actually have made some progress in this quest. In 2011, they demonstrated how the ability to monitor subjects' neural activity while watching the 2006 remake of The Pink Panther and then convert the data into crude images of Steve Martin as Inspector Clouseau. I'd like to see them make further progress and develop an actual device of the sort envisioned by Tesla. It not only would allow communication with disabled people who are unable to speak or otherwise communicate, but possibly unleash a creative revolution, in which artists and inventors could translate their imaginative visions directly into a medium that could be shared with the world.

2. Wireless transmission of energy
Late in his life, Tesla imagined a future in which we would not longer need wires, power lines or electrical outlets: "My apparatus projects particles which may be relatively large or of microscopic dimensions, enabling us to convey to a small area at a great distance trillions of times more energy than is possible with rays of any kind. Many thousands of horsepower can thus be transmitted by a stream thinner than a hair, so that nothing can resist."  That might seem like a particularly loopy fantasy, but in 2008, two researchers published this paper on how it might actually be possible to transmit energy up to 20 miles wirelessly. (Here's a longer blog post that I wrote this year on the subject of wireless electricity.) If someone could make this a reality, then we'd be spared those massive blackouts that occur when storms knock down trees and power lines with them.

3. Solar sails as a means of propulsion for spacecraft

Another eminent futurist, 19th-century author Jules Verne, predicted in his book From the Earth to the Moon that "light or electricity will probably be the mechanical agent...we shall one day travel to the moon, the planets, and the stars." (His plot actually utilized a cruder method--shooting spacecraft out of the barrel of a giant cannon). But solar sails, which would utilize a phenomenon called radiation pressure, could indeed be the renewable-energy source for future spacecraft. As Mark Thompson's recent Discovery News piece details, both NASA and Japanese space researchers have conducted solar-sail experiments in recent years. Here's hoping that in 2013 or soon thereafter, they'll unveil a practical technology based upon it.

4. Invisibility

In his 1897 novel The Invisible Man, H.G. Wells imagined a technology that would enable the air around a person to absorb light rather than reflecting it, rending the person invisible. I wrote this blog post back in 2008 about how great it would be to actually have a device similar to what Wells imagined, or to the cloak of invisibility envisioned by fantasy author J.K. Rowling.  Last month, Duke University researcher David R. Smith published this  New York Times essay about the progress that he and colleagues have made in turning light-altering invisibility into a real technology. They've already tested a new material that can manipulate microwave radiation in this fashion. Here's hoping they can accomplish the same trick with visible light in 2013. 

5. Robotic nannies

In the 1955 short story "Nanny,"  trippy visionary Philip K. Dick imagined robots resembling giant ladybugs that watched over children and functioned as artificial playmates. As you might expect from Dick, there was a dark twist: competing brands of robot nannies apparently were programmed to attack each other as well. I'm hoping that future robot manufacturers leave that behavior out of their software, but the idea of mechanical babysitters still seems pretty cool, especially to a generation of kids raised on movies such as 2008's WALL-E.   A Japanese company has developed Robovie, a humanoid robot that children seem to react favorably to. According to The Verge, a recent University of Washington study found that they regarded the machine almost as they would a kindly grandmother, with more than half saying they would go to the robot nanny if they were in need of emotional support or had secrets they wanted to share. With affluent helicopter parents increasingly anxious about who's watching their kids while they're doing Pilates or making trades on overseas financial markets, robots seem like the ideal choice. I'm guessing this is an innovation that could become commonplace sooner rather than later.

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