10 Profound Innovations Ahead
10. Read My Mind
True mind-reading devices remain in the realm of science fiction, and lie detectors rely on indirect cues to catch fibbers. Still, brain scans have allowed neuroscientists to predict what people will do during specific task experiments, and even to observe when a person will make a mistake up to half a minute beforehand. Another technique has used near-infrared light to figure out simple preferences based on brain activity. These feats rely on analyzing brain patterns that occur during specific actions, rather than truly cracking the brain’s neural code, but they still have scientists and legal experts debating mind-privacy issues. Perhaps in the near future, they’ll just use Twitter for a meeting of minds.
The new mind-reading device shows letters on a screen that flash one at a time. When the user thinks of a letter, and then that letter finally flashes, brain waves send a signal to the computer that it recognizes as, "Hey, choose that letter." It is slow, but it works for crafting short messages such as tweets for Twitter. Credit: UW-Madison
9. Around the World in 90 Minutes
Phileas Fogg took 80 days to go around the world, but travelers may eventually hop halfway around the globe in less than an hour. The U.S. Air Force and Brazil are developing a Lightcraft concept that could someday ride laser-produced explosions into the sky, and deliver passengers or cargo around the world. Barring that wild ride, space planes that could take off and land like regular aircraft have begun undergoing serious development in the U.K. and United States, and some could fly within the next few years.
Artist’s concept of Lightcraft in hypersonic mode. Credit: Media Fusion; Courtesy of NASA
8. A Perfect Artificial Limb
U.S. veterans and other prosthetic users may soon wield artificial hands, arms and legs as easily as they control their natural limbs. The most advanced prostheses tend to use "smart" microprocessors that act as tiny brains to anticipate how a user will walk or move an arm. But both monkeys and humans have already used brain signals alone to control robotic arms and digital applications, which paves the way for new brain interfaces with artificial limbs. Such technology could then retrofit the latest prostheses to give users ultimate control over that "Luke" Skywalker arm.
U.S. Army Sgt. Juan Arredondo, outfitted with an i-LIMB after losing his hand in Iraq, says it does things naturally. The i-LIMB has flexible hydraulic drives located directly in the movable finger joints. Credit: Touch Bionics
7. Know It All
People could eventually hold a hitchhiker’s guide to everything that they see. Pick up a carton of OJ in the supermarket, and nutritional comparisons about that brand would appear. Flip through a new bestseller in the bookstore, and reader reviews might flash on the pages. MIT has already unveiled a prototype of such a technology in 2009, which combines a webcam, a projector and a smart phone to link the Internet’s vast array of information with the real world. Such wearable devices would work together with embedded "smart" systems and tags to create an augmented reality, where staring at a street might bring up GPS coordinates and a local map. In the 21st century, information reigns supreme.
SixthSense is a wearable gestural interface that augments the physical world with digital information and lets people use natural hand gestures to interact with that information. Here Sixth Sense projects web video onto a prototype newspaper. Credit: MIT Media Lab
6. Regenerate the Body
No one has regenerative powers just yet, but patients can expect a growing array of therapies to repair or entirely replace organs in the human body. A British team grew the world’s first artificial liver from umbilical cord stem cells in 2006, and other researchers have since found that even the heart may harbor stem cells capable of regenerating the organ. Adult stem cells have also helped restore eyesight using a patient’s own healthy eye stem cells in an Australian study, and Chinese scientists demonstrated the potential of adult stem cells by creating live mice from reprogrammed skin cells. The future of individually-tailored organs and therapies may soon arrive.
The carbon-14 imprint left on cells from nuclear testing in the 1950s revealed the regenerative capacity of heart cells. Credit: Matthias Karlen
5. Feed the World
Solving world hunger represents an incredibly difficult task, given that the political situations and economics of each region bring their own complications. Nonetheless, scientists have moved to protect the important crops that feed most of the world. Researchers continue to develop different varieties of wheat, corn and rice that have greater yields and are more resistant to temperature changes, drought conditions and even insects. New information technologies can keep farmers updated on the condition of their crops and agricultural practices which preserve nutrient-rich soil in the long run. Even lab grown meat could help satiate the growing worldwide demand, if people can get over the ick factor. And if all else fails, scientists have stored thousands of seeds in a doomsday vault to safeguard the future of food.
Researchers tend to a test batch of heat-tolerant corn developed by University of Florida plant molecular biology researcher L. Curtis Hannah. Credit: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
4. Eliminate Waste
New technologies look to turn all our trash into reusable materials. Chicken feathers and other agricultural castoffs could become the future of plastics. Biodegradable plastics that dissolve harmlessly in seawater might actually encourage people to throw their garbage into the ocean. Food scraps, sewage and other waste has already begun to fuel some power plants and generators for the U.S. Army and civilians alike. Achieving 100 percent sustainability may still sound daunting, but the efforts do add up. MIT researchers have even begun a Trash Track project to gauge the costs and patterns of waste disposal in New York, Seattle and London, in hopes of helping more people think green.
New biodegradable plastics could be tossed into the ocean without harming the environment
3. Global Climate Control
Forget modest goals like trying to halt Mother Nature from raining on the Olympics. Geoengineering plans befitting Bond villains have become hot topics for the National Academy of Sciences, the American Meteorological Society and the White House science advisor. Ideas include lofting reflective particles up into the atmosphere to divert sunlight and cool the planet, or seeding the oceans with iron to encourage carbon-gobbling algae blooms. Even billionaire Bill Gates joined a patent filing on an idea to slow or stop hurricanes, by deploying a fleet of ships to churn the ocean and cool the warm surface water that fuels such storms. Climate control technologies have almost become reality, which raises the question of whether scientists and policymakers want to risk the side effects of such schemes.
Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have drawn up a schematic representation of various geoengineering and carbon storage proposals.Credit: Kathleen Smith/LLNL
2. Harness the Sun’s Fiery Furnace
Nuclear fusion has kept the sun shining for billions of years. Now scientists want to recreate that power on Earth and finally tap into fusion’s unbeatable energy efficiency. Giant lasers at the National Ignition Facility could help along that breakthrough by focusing their power on a tiny hydrogen fuel pellet, and ideally release more energy than what the lasers require. Still more alternatives involve the magnetic confinement of high-temperature plasma involved in fusion, or even a rebranded form of cold fusion. For now, LiveScience readers have already voted on their best bets for alternative energies.
The interior of the National Ignition Facility’s target chamber, where researchers plan to use 192 giant lasers to ignite a pinpoint fusion reaction. Credit: LLNL/DOE
1. Hack the Brain
Much of the human brain remains a mystery embedded in billions of neurons. Now researchers behind the Blue Brain Project have announced plans to create a functioning, artificial human brain within the next decade. They have already modeled part of an artificial rat brain using the IBM supercomputer Blue Gene, and said that the simulated brain cells have even begun self-organizing without human intervention. Success in reverse-engineering the brain could lead to a model for biomedical testing, as well as a better understanding of human consciousness. The researchers only caution that it’s no artificial intelligence … at least, not yet.
Scientists hope it is only a matter of time before the first artificial brain arrives. Credit: dreamstime.