If Rip Van Winkle were waking up today, having fallen asleep in the mid-1990s, he would be gobsmacked at the ubiquitousness of touchscreens and our hyperconnected lives. Tech-wise, have we ever lived in more interesting times? For instance, self-driving cars are on the verge of coming to the streets, the first commercial space trips are about to roll out, home appliances are getting cleverer by the minute, and virtual reality is becoming increasingly commonplace. What’s the next tech marvel around the corner?
Of course, not every great idea of the day will turn into a life-changing trend in the coming years. In fact, 20 years on, we will probably be rolling our eyes at some of the things we consider cutting-edge today. But the year end is a good time to look forward, so we present here a round-up of emerging and future technology that may or may not change our lives in the future.
Vacuum tube trains
Elon Musk is not all about self-driving cars and helping humans colonise Mars; if he has his way, we could be looking at super-super-fast maglev trains that could compress a 7-hours trip to just 30 minutes. The Hyperloop, a collaboration between Musk’s companies Tesla and SpaceX, is a design for a passenger or goods transport corridor which would allow travel at a mindblowing 1,200 kmph. It comprises a sealed vacuum tube in which transport pods would be able to travel at high speeds because of a lack of air resistance (friction), while needing very little energy.
Though we are not likely to see a functional Hyperloop any time soon, the design concept is open source, and there are many companies working on it. SpaceX has built a 1-mile long test track called ‘Hypertube’ and is running a pod competition—the last leg of which is in 2018—to develop prototypes of the type of vehicle to navigate the Hyperloop. While it is certainly exciting to think of covering a distance like, say, between Delhi and Kolkata in a matter of a couple of hours, as of now the concept is deemed too impractical to be safe, and it may be a few years before we see a feasible model of a vacuum tube train.
Deliveries by drone
Amazon first wowed us with their plans to deliver drones back in 2013. At that time, Jeff Bezos was roundly ridiculed in the media, as his 2018 timeline for starting drone deliveries was deemed to be ‘hugely optimistic’. In December 2016, Amazon claimed to have successfully trialled their first Prime Air delivery, to a customer in Cambridge, UK, delivering a TV streaming stick and a pack of popcorn in 13 minutes. Eventually, Amazon aims to provide 30-minute drone deliveries for packages weighing under 2.25 kg to customers around the world, but it is difficult to say when this delivery mode will get the green light. At this point, regulations regarding commercial drone use in most countries are yet to be clearly laid out; then there is the little matter of how much this delivery mode is going to cost customers.
Amazon aren’t the only company dreaming of air deliveries. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, have Project Wing, which got the go-ahead to begin testing their autonomous delivery system in August 2016. X, the company developing Project Wing, have been relatively cloak-and-dagger about their work, and apart from stating their objecting to develop the ‘next generation of delivery drones’, they haven’t given away much, including a launch date.
While Google and Amazon battle it out, drone deliveries are already quietly happening. The California-based Matternet, for example, who want to use drones to medicines, food and other aid to needy, hard-to-reach areas, were cleared in March 2017 to fly autonomously in Switzerland, partnering with Swiss Post, at any time of day or night for medical deliveries. In short, drone deliveries may not become commonplace in 2018, but they are coming to our doorsteps very soon.
The UN estimates that the world’s population will be close to 10 billion by 2050. Coupled with the ongoing climate change disaster, it is likely that we will struggle to find arable land to support the food requirements of this population. Scientists have, thus, been looking at alternative ways to grow food. One of these is, of course, indoor vertical farming in climate-controlled environments, via hydroponics and aeroponics. Indoor farming has its disadvantages, including adding to pollution and energy demands, but it might be the only way to ensure enough farmland for the future. Its advantages are not easily dismissed, however. Vertical farms might, in the long run, prove advantageous to the environment. They would increase crop yield, reduce the use of pesticides, reduce pollution from fossil fuels, and so on. Vertical farms could also become sustainable by turning its organic waste into biogas and generating its own electricity.
Another exciting model of alternative farming is Thinking Architecture’s Smart Floating Farm (SFF) to produce food using clean energy. This off-shore farming method will comprise a modular, three-story structure. The top level is covered in photovoltaic panelling and functions as a solar energy plant; the middle level is for hydroponic crop production, and the fully-enclosed bottom level is for aquaculture. This modular floating platform can be adapted for different regions and requirements to produce local food in a sustainable manner. SFF won the 2016 Sustainability Entrepreneurship Awards. Their first modules are rolling out soon.
Of course, we know that virtual reality (VR) has already started edging into the mainstream by way of the gaming market, mainly by way of the Oculus Rift VR headset, offering gamers a completely immersive experience, setting them in a fictional world to experience running, shooting, even falling while sitting still. A WSJ reviewer summed up Oculus Rift and the VR experience perfectly: ‘pricey, awkward, isolating—and occasionally brilliant—glimpse of the future of computing’. It’s the last third half that statement that interests us now. Experts predict that VR and its ‘cool cousin’ augmented reality (AR)—the placing of virtual objects in a physical space—are going to play a much bigger part in our lives in the coming years and decades. The application of VR and AR extends far beyond games and entertainment. Both Apple and Google have been working on AR apps—these days a phone app can let you place a piece of furniture in your house to see what it looks like before buying. But it doesn’t take much imagination to see how VR/AR could be applied to education, arts, architecture, medicine, the military, tourism and so much more. Science fiction almost invariably depicts futures where AR is commonplace and it’s a safe bet that that’s one thing it’s got right. Of course, AR is not going to drastically shake up 2018, but we predict that it will become just that much more integrated into our lives.
Everyone agrees that 2017 was a good year for cryptocurrency, when the value of bitcoin, the most well-known digital currency in circulation, hit a record high. To illustrate how dramatic this growth has been, if you had the foresight to have bought $10 worth of bitcoin in 2010 when the first exchange opened, it would be worth about $13 million now. Experts predict that cryptocurrency will continue to ride this wave through 2018 and if you were thinking of buying digital currency, now might be better than later. However, unbridled optimism is a bad idea. Crytocurrency is unpredictable, has no value other than supply and demand, and generates no cashflows, so it would be foolhardy to view it as an investment rather than a ‘speculative vehicle’. What might change in the near future is more ways to transact using cryptocurrency, as more and more people accept this mode of payment. What is it, however, that makes cryptocurrency such an attractive alternative to ‘regular’ money? It is its decentralised nature, meaning you don’t need to go through a bank to buy or sell cryptocurrency. This means that you also subvert traditional power structures like governments. Transactions are virtually anonymous and recorded in public ledgers called the ‘blockchain’. Needless to say, all sorts of nefarious activities are funded through cryptocurrency at this point in time, but it is also a viable alternative for those who want to transact in private. Bitcoin is not the only cryptocurrency in circulation —Ethereum, Litecoin, OmiseGo, IOTA (MIOTA) and Ripple are some others who deal with digital currency.
If the idea of biometric IDs already scares you, this one is going to send you scurrying back to bed for the rest of your life — replacing passwords with brainwave patterns. Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley’s center for long-term cybersecurity are looking to use brainwaves to create three-factor authentication logins. This is a step up from the two-factor authentication we are used to today, a typed password followed by text message or a fingerprint/biometric scan. The first step of this new three-step authentication would be the possession of a particular piece of hardware, in this case a earbud, to start the authentication process; next comes knowledge of the passphrase that one has to ‘think’; and finally, the unique brainwave pattern generated by the thought. Unlike other kinds of biometrics and earlier models of brainprint passwords, this won’t put the user at risk, for, in case one’s brainprint is stolen, one can just change the ‘passthought’ to something new and generate a new brainwave. Still not convinced? You’d be wise not to be — because this technology is not foolproof just yet. The good news: it is very early days for brainwave authentication. Good old passwords are here to stay for the foreseeable future.
Robots with personalities
Moving on now to the slightly more ridiculous side of future technology, word has it that, back in 2015, Google filed for a patent to build robots with personalities. This was ludicrous enough for some observers to comment whether it was an April fool’s joke (the patent was obtained very close to 1 April — on 31 March, in fact), but really exists (US Patent no. 8,996,429). According to the patent, personalities could be downloaded to a robot from a cloud-based system, each bot able to hold multiple personalities for interacting with different people — so it could take on the personality of your mum for you, but talk like my favourite author to me.
Creepy and a bit sad? We think so too! In fact, we’ll go out on a limb here and put our money on robots with ‘personalities’ being an unlikely development in our lifetimes. Indeed, the Siris and the Cortanas will do for now. And if the fiasco with Microsoft’s chatbot Tay is anything to go by (it was ‘corrupted’ by Twitter!), we needn’t fear that a glib-talking, wisecracking AI army is going to take over the world any time soon.