Tuesday, August 4, 2009

5 things science promised me that haven’t happened (yet)

I’ve spent most of the day working on my thesis, and instead of taking a break outside in the sun, I will continue to sit in front of my computer screen, longingly looking out the window…

I recently read somewhere that all internet journalism has turned into a cracked.com 10 ten list. Consider me now on that band wagon. Here I have compiled a list of cool things that science promised me when I was a kid, but I have yet experience any manifestation of them. Here they are, in the order that I can think of them in.

1: Flying cars.

What I was promised

I grew up with bugs bunny teaching me that the year 2000 would harbour cars that zipped through the sky, completely eliminating the need for “roads”. And don’t even get me started on what I thought I had to look forward to from Back to the Future II, where they not only had flying cars in the future, but flying hover boards as well.

mcfly and docRoads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads. 

Where we stand now

Enter: Moller Skycar. I remember watching a video about this bad boy a couple of years ago. It seems that the idea has not really taken off since then, but that doesn’t diminish the cool factor for me. This baby boasts a top speed of 375MPH and 20 miles to the gallon on ethanol fuel. The M600 model even comes with 6 seats so the whole family can go for a ride. Apparently, in the future we will all be driving these.


2: Things made of carbon nanotubes.

What I was promised

I remember reading about carbon nanotubes many years ago. I first pictured them something like long strands of spider silk. I pictured braiding them together and tying one end to the moon and making a space elevator. I pictured weaving them together to make wall paper that could conduct electricity and store information. At the very least, I was hoping for web shooters.

web_slinging2  Thanks, quantum-chemistry!

Where we stand now

From what I was able to understand, there is still a long way to go on the carbon nanotube front. Apparently the longest tubes that have been created are only about 1cm long (which, if you think of it is pretty impressive since that is about 10 million times longer then it is thick). What I did gather however, is that the length of the nanotube is not necessary important. Apparently researchers are now using nanotubes to create ridiculously small circuits, which can be used to create super fast and efficient computer chips. If Moore’s Law has anything to say about this, hopefully they will be the standard in the next few years, and my cell phone will be able to do science for me.


3: Robot butlers.

What I was promised

It is no secret that I like robots. How could you not? They work hard, are super smart, and are capable of carrying messages that will thrust you into an intergalactic adventure. True, robots have received some bad press, all with your “terminators”, “Megatons” and  your robots that are powered by human flesh1, and robots that think we taste like bacon (thanks shane). All that aside though, wouldn’t it be nice to have your own Rosie or Wadsworth ready to wash your dishes or bring you a beer from the fridge?

rosie Trying to fatten you up? Don’t be silly Mr. J….

Where we stand now

Surprisingly, thanks to those crazy Japanese, robotic butlers actually already exists, albeit without the sass that robots from my childhood had. Get ready to have your mind blown:

And Asimo is just one example. If you type “robots” into the old youtube, you can spend all kinds of time watching them dance, play violin, self assemble and just generally try to look like humans (which is almost unnerving). I rue the day when they become self-aware.


4: Cyborgs.

What I was promised

The idea of a cybernetic organism has been around since the 1960s when the term “cyborg” was coined by Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline in an article talking about how it would be useful if man could easily adapt himself to new environments during space travel. This idea inspired a book called (appropriately) “Cyborg”, which then inspired the show, “The six million dollar man”, bringing cyborgs to the masses2.


logo Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology.

Other notable cyborgs include Jax, from mortal kombat, who I’d imagine was pretty good at punching. The Borg, of course, is another classic example. And yet, after all these great ideas we have yet to shed our inferior organic forms.

Where we stand now

This is the paragraph were I finally get to talk about the monkey that control a robotic arm with her brain. I will let the video do the talking:

The crazy thing about this experiment though, is that the monkey is actually using the part of its brain that normally controls its arm. If I have understood the write-up correctly, the researchers spent a bunch of time mapping the neurons in the monkeys cortex that fired when it reached for things in 3 dimensions. They then implanted electrodes that would pick up this firing, and translated that into artificial arm movements that mimic the intended movements. So in other words, working this arm should feel exactly like using your normal arm. Wild.

Here is another one from Dean Kamen (the guy who invented the Segway and a wheelchair that will go upstairs amongst many other things). This blew my mind:

If this is what it’s like now, imagine what this will be like 10, 15 years from now…

Other cyborg-like things I’ve heard of include using only your brain to send twitter messages, figuring out what word a person is seeing by only reading their visual cortex activity through fMRI and controlling a wheelchair using only your thoughts (and for the record, the end of this video shows someone controlling our friend Asimo using only his brain).


Now, I know I said 5 things, but writing this is taking me forever, so I’m going to stop at 4. Is there anything else of the future you guys can think of? I’d be interested to hear what everyone is waiting patiently for….


1 A gross exaggeration

2 I have probably left out some parts