INTERVIEWS BY ROCCO CASTORO AND SIGURD KONGSHØJ LARSEN
ILLUSTRATIONS BY CHRISTY KARACAS
Thinking about the state of technology today makes us want to curl up in the fetal position and cry like the Star-Child from the end of 2001 (if it had galactic diaper rash). Where is all the cool future stuff they promised us in cartoons and sci-fi movies from the 50s through the 70s? What is with this primitive life we’re all leading?
According to the future of the past, we should be cruising around in flying cars, living forever, and shooting our enemies with death rays so that they won’t live forever. Yet here we are, driving in cars on the ground, dying in our 80s, and having to resort to bullets for our murdering needs. WTF, future? In fact, you know what? Fuck flying cars. We should just be teleporting everywhere by now. Fuck!
Here are the current states of some imminent technological breakthroughs that have yet to break through, as told to us by the people who might actually finally make them happen.
Tap, tap, tap. We’re waiting…
Peter A. Schlesinger, president, HSV Technologies: We formed HSV Technologies with the idea of creating a nonlethal weapon that uses ultraviolet laser beams to immobilize a target. An associate inventor assisted us with the initial patents and formulations. Proof-of-principle testing was conducted at the University of Southern California and was overseen by Dr. Richard Scheps, one of the most qualified experts in the laser and optics field in the US. Our main objective is to assist law enforcement. Unlike a standard Taser, our UV beam immobilizes the skeletal muscles of any organism within nanoseconds. They will be subdued for as long as the trigger is held, and the device could be used to immobilize several people at the same time. So if the individual has a thumb on a bomb trigger or pistol, there’s time to approach him or her and still have some seconds left to remove the weapon and handcuff the suspect. Another application of this technology is a vehicle-disabling device. Let’s say a patrol car is chasing OJ Simpson, who refuses to stop. The officer could shoot a laser and entirely disrupt the car battery, effectively disabling the vehicle. We don’t have a prototype yet because of inadequate funding, but there are people attempting to copycat everything we’re doing at this very instant. If HSV is able to raise the seed money, we could have a working model in our hands within six months.
The verdict: You’ll most likely be vaporized by one during WWIII.
REVERSAL OF AGING
Aubrey de Grey, biomedical gerontologist; BA, MA, and PhD, University of Cambridge: I think we’re looking at about 25 or 30 years before we have the means to stop or significantly reverse the aging process, but I want to emphasize that this time frame is a very speculative estimate. The one caveat for it is that we’ve got to try harder. A lot of the scientific research that needs to be done is not going nearly as fast as it could because there are not enough resources being spent. My work focuses on the advancement of straightforward, standard biotechnology. We need to tackle aging by halting the accumulation of a whole variety of different types of molecular and cellular damage that need to be averted and repaired periodically in order to keep people going, to keep the metabolism happy. I believe the solution lies in what I’m going to call regenerative medicine. Having proper funding for stem-cell research and stem-cell therapy is very important. Investing in these things will advance tissue engineering and quite a lot of areas that do not normally come under the heading of regenerative medicine but should, because they also involve restoring tissues and organs to a state of what they used to be like at a younger age. My devotion to this field is not because I think it’s important for people to live a long time. It’s because I think it’s important to stop people from getting sick.
The verdict: Maybe in your lifetime, but only if you quit drinking irresponsibly, smoking, and stuffing garbage in your face all the time.
Hiroshi Ishiguro, professor and director of the Intelligent Robotics Lab, Osaka University: Honda and other companies have been working on the development of humanoid robots for a while now. They are thoroughly examining their practical applications, especially for “town robots” that work in public and private places. Modern-day computers are not the ideal interface for situations where people may have questions or need assistance—train stations are a good example of where humanoids would work much better than standard computers. I would say we’re going to see things like housekeeping robots and robots to assist the elderly become affordable to typical middle-class families within 40 to 50 years. Of course, this depends on the possibility of creating the perfect android. Integrating believable movement and appearance in robots is a big challenge, but it is one I think we will be able to overcome. In academia, we are closely studying the interactions between humans and robots, so we may reach a happy medium soon. It will be possible to create the proper hardware if we work with companies to reach the point of mass production. The software, however, will be the main dilemma. Obviously, a computer is different from the human brain, and we will reach a greater level of success if we limit the situation and the purpose of robots. Right now, we’re thinking small and using what we learn to dream big. For instance, I have a talking refrigerator, but its tasks are quite simple. Someday I hope to have an army of friendly robotic helpers at my disposal.
The verdict: When you’re old, a hospice cyborg will probably wipe your ass.
ULTRA-INVASIVE SATELLITE SURVEILLANCE
John Smart, futurist; founder and president of the Acceleration Studies Foundation; MS in futures studies, University of Houston: There’s a really interesting technology emerging called stratollites, which are satellites that orbit the stratosphere. They are shaped like wings, are powered by solar panels, and fly at about 30 mph at around 70,000 to 80,000 feet. Today, the lowest satellites are 90 miles up, while most hover somewhere around 23,000 miles above Earth. Eventually radar, optical telescopes, and broadband communication technologies will be coupled with stratollites, and they will have the capability to monitor anything beneath them at the level of a millimeter of resolution—we’re talking the ability to see bugs crawling across a country’s border and the detail on the back of your hand. This is what Google Earth will be like for our kids in 2050, and as long as democracies continue to hold power, I believe increased transparency will be a good thing. It goes without saying that the military will want to fly them over hot spots where they’re not willing to send people—the Department of Defense is working on using space-based power and stratollites in tandem by beaming the solar power collected by satellites back to Earth. The most efficient way to distribute this energy is to send it to the troposphere, which is at about 70,000 feet up. At that altitude there are no clouds—in fact, there’s almost no atmosphere at all. This means energy sent from space satellites to stratollites is at a level of almost 100 percent efficiency. It will allow the military to provision constellations of stratollites around a central satellite with negligible environmental impact.
The verdict: Chances are Big Brother can already see how fat you look in the bathroom mirror.
Sougato Bose, professor of physics, University College, London: Most people think of teleportation as something from Star Trek, but we may never have anything like that. What we will be capable of in the near future is something called quantum teleportation—the act of transmitting quantum mechanical information, which operates in a different fashion from the classical rules of physics. Normal computers encode information as a series of zeros and ones, so if you send a fax to someone it just copies that string of code and arrives at someone else’s fax machine while you retain the original copy. In quantum mechanics there are states of information that are not exactly zeros and ones: They are strings of zeros plus ones, zeros minus ones, and other peculiar combinations of zeros and ones, and you cannot copy them without destroying the originating string. So quantum teleportation is like a quantum mechanical fax, except, unlike a normal fax, the original is destroyed in one place and then automatically appears somewhere in the distance. In the end, the usefulness of this will be in connecting small-size quantum computers to make larger quantum supercomputers, which I estimate will happen in ten to fifteen years. They will be highly specialized and used for things like cracking advanced data encryption and protecting confidential communications.
The verdict: Sorry, you’re going to have to deal with road rage and people farting in airplanes forever.
John Bakker, original developer of the PAL-V and chief technology officer of PAL-V Europe NV: In 1999, I started taking gyrocopter lessons, and this led me to the possibility of combining a gyrocopter with an automobile. After designing several concepts, my colleagues and I started raising money in 2006. Two years later, we started the company PAL-V Europe NV. Test flights are set to begin in the second quarter of 2010. At first, we will only sell PAL-Vs to hospitals, police departments, and other organizations that have a clear need for this type of vehicle. By 2014, private citizens should be able to buy them. Outside of the mechanics, the most challenging logistical aspect of developing a flying automobile has been making sure it can be legally operated on the road as well as in the air. The PAL-V is designed to fly at heights of 500 to 4,000 feet, and it will take about 20 hours of training to become comfortable enough to drive without additional guidance. We believe an air-traffic solution lies in what we call the “Highway in the Sky” system. It will work like an advanced GPS that will precisely pinpoint the location of vehicles, buildings, and other potentially hazardous objects in the driver’s vicinity. Roads will always exist for the transportation of heavy goods, but we hope the skies will soon be filled with personal flying machines.
The verdict: You’ll be able to drive one within the next ten years. If you’re a gazillionaire.
Paul Davies, director, Beyond: Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, Arizona State University: To leap years ahead into the future requires travel at nearly the speed of light. I imagine that in 1,000 years we may have propulsion systems that can achieve a significant fraction of the speed of light. The astronauts will then notice serious time-warping effects. Going back in time, however, is far more problematic. As I explain in my book How to Build a Time Machine, the best hope is to use a wormhole. If large wormholes exist somewhere in the galaxy, a super-civilization might be able to harness and convert them into a general-purpose time machine that goes both forward and back in time. If large wormholes don’t exist in nature, we may be able to create one by inflating a microscopic quantum wormhole. There is a small chance that microscopic wormholes will be made later this year using the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Contrary to popular belief, there doesn’t seem to be a risk of wormholes destroying the universe. They are likely to be exceedingly fragile, and most physicists think they are intrinsically unstable and will implode before they can do any harm. Things like the grandfather paradox are only a problem if you attempt to change the outcome of events. As long as the narrative is self-consistent, there is no impediment to a person just being part of the past. Time travel simply means certain sequences of events are impossible, but there’s nothing new to that. My free will makes me want to walk on the ceiling, but the laws of physics forbid it.
The verdict: If someone figures out how to create a wormhole without destroying the universe, we’re all set.
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