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Tomorrow’s World

Many next-generation life-changing technologies are, in fact, composed of things that have been with us for some time – the iPhone, for one, was nothing more than a brilliantly cool arrangement of familiar elements. Most of the time we’re just waiting for some smart engineers to assemble them into irresistible new products. So here are four technologies that might sound familiar but will be big in our lives five years from now

1. Hands-Free Driving
What’s driving it:
Governments trying to make driving safer and eliminate the need for somebody behind the wheel.
The drawback:
Too safe for some.

Today’s cars are full of electronics to make them run better. In the next few years they’ll be stuffed with smarts that make them run by themselves.

The first driverless car is already on the road, thanks to Google, and has even been granted a licence by the US state of Nevada. It works using video cameras, front and back sensors, and a special laser sensor on the roof, all tied together using artificial intelligence and, of course, Google Maps.

Not that Google is going into the auto business. It says its aim is to help save lives – some 1.2 million people die annually in car accidents – and reduce carbon emissions through more efficient driving.

But the experiment points the way ahead for cars and driving. A decade from now, most cars will still be human-driven but your ride will make a lot of its own decisions about speed, route and lane changing. It will also do a lot of the work to prevent collisions.

Take one technology that’s already here, autonomous emergency braking (AEB): sooner rather than later it will make rear-end collisions a thing of the past. It uses a laser or sensors to sense the location of other cars and pedestrians, and then applies the brakes before impact. From the end of next year, it will be compulsory on new vehicles in Europe.

Audi, a pioneer in a lot of new vehicle technologies, is starting to offer infrared headlights that will show up human figures on a screen on the dashboard.

Indeed, the dashboard itself will be a much livelier place. It will probably already have learnt your destination from its auto-sync with your PC or tablet. If not, you’ll be able to guide it yourself by voice. It will also know your preferred in-car music and entertainment.

The obstacles? Probably the biggest constraints on the brave new automated automobile world will be the regulations. Many of our road laws stretch back to the horse and buggy days – requiring a human driver to be at the wheel, for example.

And while the smart cars will make us safer, there’s a limit on how safe we want to feel. Some humans will chafe at being told how fast they can drive. In the future, breaking into a car may well mean being able to hack into your vehicle’s operating system.

2. The Omnipotent Cloud
What’s driving it:
Low-cost computing, bandwidth and smart devices
The drawback: Security

Unless you’ve been mining an asteroid for the past five years, you’re bound to have heard of ‘the cloud’. Although the word is applied in a confusing number of ways, it just means connecting to data on a remote server rather than on your device.

Webmail services like the old Microsoft Hotmail were some of the early and simple examples. More recently you’re likely to have signed up for a Dropbox service, which lets you save your files remotely, or to Evernote, which allows you to sync data between devices.

More recently, the arrival of smartphones and tablets, and the falling cost of computing and bandwidth means we will never be without our data. For example, if you’re a music fan you might already be using iTunes Match, which matches your existing collection with a cloud version, making your tracks instantly available to your devices wherever you are.

But those apps just swap data. The next generation of networks and devices will give us computing grunt via the cloud to deploy powerful problem-solving apps.

A simple one is to use the cloud to arrange and prioritise our communications – mobile, work, personal, email, telephone, social media – on the fly. It will send on the important or urgent messages and leave the others for later.

Crowdsourced apps will also play a role. Mobile Eye, an app developed by a group of Auckland University students, literally helps the blind to see. A person can take a photo of their surroundings and post it to Skype or Facebook and get their friends or family to guide them.

The cloud can be combined with sensors worn on the body or found in our devices that can send health alerts for the elderly or send preventative advice on conditions that are developing.

In another decade, we may be able to store our entire DNA data in the cloud and get updates on specific genetic conditions.

The downside is security. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is one who keeps warning that cloud disasters are waiting to happen. One just did happen to Silicon Valley journalist Mat Honan, who lost his music, his family photo albums and work notes after hackers broke into his iCloud account and deleted everything from the server and his devices.

3. A Richer Reality
What’s driving it:
Smart devices, demand for compelling content and experiences
The drawback: Looks way uncool

Augmented reality, or AR, is a clunky name for a powerful technology. The idea, as the name suggests, is to add data, such as sound, video, a street scene or a map, to enrich the way we see or experience the physical world. It’s basically the opposite of virtual reality, which replaces the real world with a simulated one.

AR has been a sci-fi movie favourite for a while – remember the Terminator’s viewing field, or the AR vacations in Total Recall?

We get glimpses of AR in TV sport where sponsors’ logos or game data are shown appearing on the field of play. Some Boeing jets have installed an AR viewer in the cockpit so the pilots don’t have to look down.  Most of the popular games consoles deliver some kind of AR.

IT industry pacesetters Apple and Google are both pursuing AR devices. Apple has filed a patent for a display comprising a lens fitted over one eye. Google has shown off a prototype called Google Glass that includes an embedded camera. It says it will release a product next year, but the look – a headband and an eyepiece – is too clunky even for the most enthusiastic geeks. Google thinks it can eventually be reduced to the size of a contact lens, but that’s a long way off.

AR is about more than just headbands, though. Where it will take off in the next five years will be via the smartphone or tablet that you carry around.

Already available is the Aurasma app that lets you point at an object, like a newspaper photo, and in so doing activate a video on that topic. Instead of a manual to help you do DIY, point your phone and a voice will guide you. This has obvious benefits for information-loaded public services like education – geography classes can literally come to life – or health, where professionals will be able to graphically show their diagnoses.

But before the traditionally slow adopters embrace AR, it will emerge in commercial environments like sport – we’ll be able to point at an athlete or team to generate fresh data about them. You can count on adult services to also give AR a big hug.

The applications are almost limitless. With the ability to blur the boundaries between physical and human-created realities, AR could be one of the transformative technologies of the next 20 years.

4. High-Tech H20
What’s driving it:
Demand from water-scarce communities
The drawbacks: Cost, distribution

Away from the gadgets that make our well-ordered urban lives even more convenient, new tech is now being developed that could have a more fundamental impact on the world – specifically, on drinking water. More than a billion people lack access to clean water, according to the WHO, and that number is expected to grow by 50 per cent by 2050.

Technology alone cannot solve water problems – economy and local land and water use are bigger factors. But practical solutions can certainly help. In particular, cost-effective access to safe water can ensure the survival of water-scarce communities. Currently dozens of water technologies are in use, ranging from dew harvesting and solar disinfection to the lining of ground wells to prevent contamination.

Recent advances in purification offer hope. The Lifestraw, a filtering system in a plastic tube, provides a safe personal water supply.

A more cost-effective solution, built by US engineering students, is a purifier system using a ceramic filter with small holes that costs US$5 and lasts five years.

A new and exciting technology is aerographite; described as the lightest material ever produced, it’s 75 times lighter than Styrofoam. It has many possible uses, but it has the ability to eliminate water pollutants by oxidising or decomposing them. Just unveiled by German scientists, this will take some time to come to market.

A new flush: reinventing the toilet

Water scarcity doesn’t just affect human consumption: it’s critical for sanitation as well. But the traditional toilet requires large amounts of water and it is expensive to treat sewage. The result is that 2.5 billion people don’t have a toilet to go to.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently handed out the prizes in its 12-month competition to reinvent the toilet. It sought a solution that cost less than 5 cents per person per day to operate and did not require electricity or sewer pipes.

The winner of the US$100,000 prize was a team from the California Institute of Technology. It used a solar panel to power a reactor that breaks down water and human waste into fertiliser and hydrogen gas. The gas can be stored in hydrogen fuel cells as a backup power source, while the treated water can be used to flush the toilet or for irrigation.

A Swiss-Austrian proposal won a special US$40,000 prize for its smart interface that includes a revolving squat plate and a window that shows water being pumped into a tank.

Hollwood’s future technologies: That have come true

Test tube babies
Just Imagine (1930)

In this sci-fi musical set in New York in the “future” of 1980, test tube babies are a common part of life. Coincidentally, the first person to be conceived by in vitro fertilisation or IVF, ie a test tube baby, was born in 1978 in Oldham, England. While they got the location wrong, the year is so close, making it one of the more accurate predictions.

Universal translator
Star Trek (1979)

After the introduction of the universal translator in the late 22nd century, James T Kirk could finally communicate with aliens. Similarly, but for use in foreign countries, Microsoft’s universal translator is able to capture a user’s voice in English and translate it into 26 languages while retaining the accent and intonation of the user’s voice.

Hover board
Back to the Future Part II (1989)

One of the coolest gadgets from Back to the Future Part II, the hover board, is almost at hand. After 23 years, Mattel has produced a replica of the neon pink hover board priced at US$120 that “glides” over most surfaces and is set to hit stores in time for Christmas. Although this version doesn’t actually “hover” Mattel says to check back in two year’s time as the film is set in 2015! The current one, however, makes a whooshing sound if that’s any consolation.

Self-tying shoelaces
Back to the Future Part II (1989)

Another iconic invention from Marty McFly’s trilogy is his self-tying hightops. Although not in mainstream production yet, Nike has filed a patent for self-tying shoes. However, US inventor Blake Bevin is racing to get her working prototype on the market before Nike does. Bevin’s version isn’t as slick as McFly’s, requiring a chunky external power supply attached to the heels, but the laces automatically tighten as soon as your foot presses down on the bottom of the shoe. At this rate it won’t be long before DeLoreans are sold with a flux capacitor!

3D holograms
Minority Report (2002)

When Tom Cruise’s character, John Anderton, meddled with 3D holographic images in the air as if they were real-life objects, no one gave it much thought until the Coachella Valley Music & Arts festival took place this year. American rapper Tupac Shakur, who died more than 15 years ago, was “revived” and “performed” on stage to a shocked and elated crowd, all thanks to 3D hologram technology.

Hollwood’s future technologies: That have been proved wrong

Meal in a pill
Just Imagine (1930)

Along with the book The Republic of the Future written by Anna Dodd in 1887, Just Imagine imagined a future with three-course meals condensed into little capsules. Right now, the closest we’ve come are meal replacement drinks and shakes. Although it may seem extremely convenient to pop a satiating pill during busy days, we think the meal pill forfeits the purpose of enjoying food and, to a large extent, life. So here’s hoping the boffins don’t follow this one up.

Time travel
Timecop (1994)

By 1994, humans, according to Timecop, would have perfected the ability to time travel. It’s a pity this is nowhere close to coming true or people, no doubt, would be zipping halfway across the globe to ski during their lunch hour.

Space travel
A Space Odyssey (1968)

Set in 2001, A Space Odyssey’s mankind is happily travelling through space listening to the advice of a self-aware murderous supercomputer named HAL 9000 who makes Siri [Apple] look 8-bit. [/Boxout]