Crazy sci-fi technologies that are on the way

Meanwhile printers still chew up paper and use ink made from unicorn blood

Yesterday’s science-fiction is today’s science-fact. Wrist computers? Check. Space stations? Check. Video calling? Check. Today, a small robot can patrol and clean my floors like in The Jetsons. We have Star Trek’s replicators in the form of 3D printers. I can tap a handheld device a few times and food arrives at my door. It feels like a crazy time to be alive but I’m sure I’d feel the same in the 1950s or 2050s, which is an interesting thought. Video calling doesn’t feel sci-fi to me but it did to people watching 2001: A Space Odyssey back in 1968. So what technologies feel like sci-fi today but are already in development?

Invisibility

This one is as important to the fantasy genre as it is to sci-fi, especially thanks to Harry Potter and his invisibility cloak. Many physics labs around the world are working on invisibility in one way or another including nanotechnology and metamaterials. Professor Ulf Leonhardtat of the University of St Andrews specialises in invisibility and wants to design a device that takes advantage of the law of refraction. The bending of light is responsible for many optical illusions including desert mirages where light from the sky is bent. To an observer, they see some sky on the desert sands, which is mistaken for water due to its colour. Professor Leonhardtat hopes to build a device that allows light entering from one side to be bent through the material and around an object. Any light from behind then emerges at the other side exactly as it was before it entered the device, so any observer would see only what is behind the device. Scientists are still solving the necessary mathematics and developing the perfect material for the invisibility cloak, but they’re making progress. Other groups including the US military are studying how cuttlefish use their camouflage to hide in plain sight.

Travelling in tubes

As Jack Black said in Tenacious D’s City Hall, “get the scientists working on the tube technology!” It’s a sci-fi staple we’ve seen in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and Futurama. Why walk when you can be transported around the city (or chocolate factory) in tubes? It’s unlikely we’ll be throwing our own bodies around in tubes any time soon, but SpaceX does think tubes can play a big role in future transport. When Elon Musk isn’t launching rockets into space or developing electric cars he also finds time to think about a transportation system using tubes.

Hyperloop is a project that aims to provide fast, efficient, low-cost, self-powering, weather-and-earthquake-proof transport between cities. Rather than climbing into a tube yourself, travellers will sit in pods that glide through tubes at speeds above 700 mph. Sending pods flying through tubes isn’t a novel idea but there have always been practical problems such as friction in the tube and generating enough power. Hyperloop pods will travel on a cushion of air that pumps from the front of the pod to the back, all powered by solar panels on the tubes themselves. Work is underway and Aecom has been chosen to build the Hyperloop test track at SpaceX’s HQ in California.

Deflector shields (force fields)

The idea of an energy shield or energy bubble around a spaceship is nonsense. Energy isn’t some medium you can shape around an object. If we’re going to develop deflector shields to keep out photon torpedoes and pesky X-Wings, we’ll have to use something more realistic. Several research groups have published work detailing proposals for future shields that could work and the most exciting use electromagnetism. Our own planet is constantly barraged by solar winds but we’re protected from most of it by the Earth’s magnetic field. Studies using electromagnetism and plasma are suggesting that we could protect future astronauts from solar winds by giving them their own magnetosphere.

Laser weapons

Ray guns. Doomsday devices. The Death Star. Sci-fi films have substituted the Western’s bang-bang for pew-pew. Not only are energy weapons actively being worked on, they already exist and are used by the US military. The LaWS (Laser Weapon System) is a US Navy weapon system seen pictured. It’s been tested on several ships already, most notably being installed on the USS Ponce in 2014. The directed-energy weapon, designed to destroy incoming drones or even helicopters, worked perfectly during tests and is now a standard defence weapon aboard the USS Ponce. The commander is now free to make use of the weapon as part of the ship’s self-defence system. The Navy is also modifying the technology to be used by ground forces. LaWS cannot be used to fire directly at humans according to the UN’s Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. War has rules, you know?

Some of this technology feels far-fetched but that’s how much of our current technology was viewed decades ago. It must be said that some people are better than others at predicting future technologies. In 1964, sci-fi author and biochemistry professor Isaac Asimov published an essay predicting what technology we might see at the 2014 World Fair. He foresaw us using wireless devices and instant coffee machines. He imagined us buying frozen ready meals and making video calls. He predicted that we would be designing self-driving cars. He described viewers watching ballet on 3D televisions. He wrote that “there will be increasing emphasis on transportation that makes the least possible contact with the surface”, which sounds very much like Elon Musk’s Hyperloop transport. He even pinpointed how advanced some of these technologies would be. When discussing robots, he wrote that that they won’t be very good by 2014 but will exist. Regarding Mars, he predicted that we will have landed unmanned vehicles by 2014 (hello rovers) but will only be at the planning stage for manned missions to the red planet.

If a sci-fi author can get all that right, then perhaps today’s sci-fi will give us a glimpse into the near future.


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