From artificial intelligence to augmented reality, Steve Dinneen reveals the innovations powering the tech of tomorrow.
The 20th century saw an explosion in technological innovation that made the Renaissance look like a primary school lesson. It was the century when humankind really started to grasp the fundamental building blocks of the universe and use them to its advantage. Transportation, energy and medicine evolved at a blistering pace, revolutionising the lives of those wealthy enough to benefit.
It’s hard to stress the sheer relentlessness of innovation – Moore’s Law says the average number of transistors on an integrated circuit (a rough measuring stick for the rate of computing-hardware innovation) doubles every two years. On top of this, at the tail-end of the 20th century, the Internet came along and changed everything again. Suddenly, scientists and thinkers no longer had to wait weeks or months to share information – they could do it in real-time, across continents.
“Everything we’ve been doing for the past 60 years is just preparation,” says Dr Graeme Codrington, a futurologist and co-founder of research company Tomorrow Today. “Computing progress so far has been all about technology catching up with our imaginations. We are now very close to this ‘tipping point’ – we’re at the level science fiction writers were imagining a few decades ago.”
David Hanson, a robotics engineer and founder of Hanson Robotics, builds realistic-looking robots (coated in a skin-like material called “frubber”) that can understand language, recognise facial expressions and, in a rudimentary way, work out what you are feeling. According to Hanson, we are only one or two decades away from the artificial intelligence (AI) “tipping point”, after which our creations become fully aware and start to overtake us (Terminator 2 fans might refer to it as “Judgement Day”, the apocalyptic moment when machines become self-aware and promptly trigger global armageddon).
Hanson’s creations include Einstein, which looks like the famous professor and is mounted on a bipedal robot, and Bina48, reputedly the most intelligent robot in the world. Bina48 is based on the memories and experiences of a real woman, Bina Rothblatt. It is loaded with hundreds of hours of interviews with its human “twin”, which it can occasionally recall during conversation. While Bina48 is largely unconvincing as a human surrogate, momentary flashes of “lucidity”, when a ghost appears to flicker in the machine, are astonishing and creepy in almost equal measure.
According to Codrington, the future siblings of Bina48 will solve a question that has troubled humans for millennia: what constitutes consciousness?
“Within 20 years, I’m quite confident we will know where consciousness comes from, and if it is simply an element of intelligence,” he says. “If this is the case – and it is a big ‘if’ – it could be a real game-changer for the human race. If consciousness develops purely through intelligence, then there is no reason why we wouldn’t be able to ‘upload’ our ‘essence’ or personality into something that doesn’t degrade in the way our bodies do. It’s called ‘transhumanism’.”
Dr Aubrey de Grey, a gerontology theorist (the study of the social, psychological and biological aspects of ageing), believes the first human who will end up living far beyond the confines of current biology has probably already been born. Moreover, anyone under the age of 50 has a roughly even chance of enjoying a massively extended lifespan.
So far, so sci-fi. But even in the shorter term, and on a more tangible scale, technology is revolutionising the way we interact with the world.
Take augmented reality (AR). Magnifying lenses have long helped people to see further, but they are still limited to what is really there. AR, such as the software being pioneered by Aurasma, Layar and Blippar, uses physical reality as the jump-off point for a whole new “data layer”.
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams imagined the Babel fish, a telepathic creature that could live in the human ear, translating languages between different nations and even species. Now Google is doing it for real, working on software that can understand and translate language, while smartphone apps such as Word Lens can overlay translations on to almost any body of text (see overleaf ).
Imagine how much less foreign a city would feel if the signs you looked at were automatically translated and words spoken in unknown tongues just made sense, as if by magic. Commercial air travel made the world a far smaller place, as did the Internet. Now, it’s about to get a whole lot smaller again. In the meantime, here are some more impossibly futuristic gadgets to try to get your head around…
1. GOOGLE PROJECT GLASS
Availability: Possibly 2013
Google revolutionised the Internet with its search engine. It broke Apple’s near-monopoly on smartphones. It has given us self-driving cars and street-by-street photo-maps of entire countries. But, its most exciting product is still in the pipeline – Project Glass. In what appears, from demo models, to be a relatively unobtrusive set of glasses, Google has the technology to overlay the information you’d normally look up on your smartphone on top of your everyday vision. It uses voice recognition to interact with you – so, for example, if you ask the heads-up display that appears in front of you: “How do I get to the airport?” it will cross-reference with Google Maps and provide directions, including a map.
2. SAMSUNG WB850F
Replacing film photography with digital was a godsend – no more blurred snaps and ruined holiday pics. But, there is one fundamental flaw – downloading photographs requires a bit of effort. The new range of Samsung pocket cameras, led by the best-in-class WB850f, solves this issue. The WB850f is a Wi-Fi-enabled camera that allows you to automatically beam your pictures to the cloud or even upload them directly to social media sites. It also comes with all the features you would expect, including 16-megapixels and 21x optical zoom.
3. NOKIA LUMIA 920 NFC-ENABLED SMARTPHONE
Cost: From free, dependent on contract
Availability: Launches in UK this month
The concept of paying for stuff with your smartphone has been around for a while, but it is about to become a reality. Many of the latest generation of handsets come loaded with encrypted near-field communication chips, which enable you to simply scan your phone in stores and your account will be debited. The Windows Phone-based Lumia is one of the best on the market: proof that there is more to the smartphone world than Samsung and Apple.
4. WORD LENS
Cost: Free to download, $5 for each language (Spanish, French, Italian)
Apple App Store, Google Play (Android)
The stuff of science fiction a few years ago, Word Lens allows you to point your smartphone at text and, using AR, get an accurate(ish) translation overlaid. While it can still be a bit jittery and some of the translations are a bit iffy, it’s enough to get you through a menu in a French restaurant. While it currently only works in Spanish, French and Italian, more languages are in the pipeline. Imagine how much easier that business trip to Tokyo would be if you could translate every signpost into English.
5. APPLE MAPS
Apple iOS 6 devices
Apple’s new maps software had a rather rude awakening after users immediately spotted that several major landmarks had been shifted out of place and antiquated place names had been resurrected. But one feature is incredibly impressive – the satellite “flyover”. Apple has rendered finely detailed versions of city centres that you can swoop through like in a real-life computer game. The level of detail is astonishing – after zooming in on the Gherkin in London, there is one window in particular that you can clearly peer into. If Apple can build on this, it could be something very special.
6. CYBERTECTURE MIRROR
Since reading fairytales as children, people have been intrigued by magic mirrors – that seductive blend of practicality and narcissism. Now, you can have your very own. While the Cybertecture Mirror may not be able to work out who is the fairest in the land (not yet, anyway), it can display your emails, tell you what the weather is going to be like and, if you hook it up to a set of Wi-Fi scales, break it to you that you have put on weight. The thought of losing even more “me time”, even while brushing your teeth, may put some people off, but if you’re running late for a meeting and need to check your emails first, it could be a lifesaver.
7. LG SMART REFRIGERATOR
Availability: Late 2012/2013
Since automatons were first dreamed up, us lazy humans have longed for robots to do our bidding. LG’s smart refrigerator is probably the closest we’ve come. It will check food in and out, and when items run low, automatically order new ones over the Internet so you don’t have to traipse to the shops. Need a recipe? Just search for one on the built-in screen on the fridge door – and when you’ve made your mind up, it can tell the oven to heat up in preparation (provided that’s LG too).
8. CUBIFY 3D PRINTER
Printing in 3D is so futuristic, it’s difficult to even imagine. The concept is a science fiction mainstay – you tell a vending machine what you need and it drops out, like a chocolate bar. Now you can have your very own 3D printer. It isn’t quite up to sci-fi levels yet, but the creations are almost unbelievable in their complexity. The object you want to print is scanned using lasers to give the printer a 3D image; then, using cartridges of special resin, it will, over the space of a few hours, build it for you. It is capable of incredible detail and can make shapes that would otherwise be incredibly difficult to construct. To see a more advanced industrial model capable of making items with moving parts (alas, not yet available for consumers) visit bit.ly/QZQTZC.