Here’s a list of the top 10 most promising up and coming technological inventions inspired by the pages, scenes and sounds of science fiction.
The Sonic Screwdriver
One of the coolest tool used in the popular sci-fi series Doctor Who is the sonic screwdriver (pictured with actor David Tennant). This device allows The Doctor on the series to do everything from opening doors, to altering radio and satellite signals to cutting, burning, welding, healing wounds and much more. And now, British engineers are working on the very first real sonic screwdriver.
Professor Bruce Dinkwater, an ultrasonic engineer at the University of Bristol, explained, “We have developed a device that allows us to use ultrasonic forces to move small objects like biological cells around to sort them or to assemble them.”
A prototype has been created by using tiny crystals that vibrate when an electrical current is passed through them. This causes an ultrasonic shock wave in the air around the device. The size of the shock wave can be tuned to move biological cells around, potentially separating diseased cells from healthy ones.
Of course, the real sonic screwdriver won’t be quite as multi-purpose as The Doctor’s, but these engineers are off to a good start.
The Force Field
So how does the Enterprise of Star Trek protect itself from incoming attacks? By using the handy-dandy force field, of course! But this is something that has not, as of yet, become a reality in our real world.
Until now, that is. British military scientists are currently working on creating their own force fields in order to protect armored vehicles by repelling incoming fire. This new armor will incorporate super capacitors to use pulses of electrical energy. When a threat is detected by the vehicle, the energy in the super capacitor would be sent into the metal plating on the outside of the vehicle in order to produce an electromagnetic field around it.
Unlike on Star Trek, though, this force field would only last for a few seconds, but if timed properly, could still save lives and then be rapidly recharged and ready for the next attack. This technology could also cut down on the weight of military vehicles using it.
The Invisibility Cloak
One of the cool things in Harry Potter’s possession (in both the movies and the books) was his Invisibility Cloak. When Harry puts the cloak on, he disappears! But how could this possibly ever become a reality?
Well, maybe you’ll want to ask the University of Texas at Dallas, who has successfully re-created the mirage effect of the invisibility cloak in a lab. In fact, it almost seems simple when researchers explained it. Using a combination of photo thermal deflection (otherwise known as “the mirage effect”) and nanotechnology, researchers took carbon nanotubes and heated them up with electricity. In a container of water, they bent the light around them, making a sheet of material “disappear.”
Another inspired piece of Star Trek technology that gets every science fiction geek drooling is the idea of teleportation. If it were real, think of the possibilities! Obviously, we’re still a long way of being able to tell Scotty to beam us up, but progress is being made by the world’s top scientists.
In 2008, scientists from the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland and the University of Michigan teamed up to tackle teleportation. Although, previous experiments had been able to exchange information between light particles as long as they were right next to each other, this new experiment was the first in which information traveled a more significant distance between two isolated atoms.
So how did they do it? A pair of ions was each placed in its own container, a vacuum, and kept in position with electric fields. A laser pulse quickly triggered the atoms to emit photons simultaneously. The photons interact and the parent atoms enter quantum entanglement (this is when one of the atoms adopts the properties of the other atom even though they’re in separate chambers). When the first atom is measured, the information that had been encoded on it disappears and is then “teleported” to the second atom.
And just two years ago, Chinese physicists used this same process and successfully teleported photons over 10 miles.
It seems Star Trek is at the top of the list for inspiring researchers and scientists. Yet another device that could very soon become a reality is the tricorder. On the television series, the tricorder is used for everything from sensor scanning to data analysis and recording data.
In reality, Dr. Peter Jansen, of the Cognitive Science Laboratory at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, has developed a measurement device based on the Star Trek model. He has been working on his prototype for the tricorder for several years and has stated that his model can take atmospheric measurements, electromagnetic measurements and can make spatial measurements of distance, location or motion. And if you happen to want to make one of your own, Jansen has made his discoveries open source and available on the Tricorder Project website.
The Self-Driving Car
I’m not entirely sure you would refer to Knight Rider’s KITT as science fiction, but self-driving cars are all the talk these days. Even Google has jumped on the bandwagon to start developing them and their models are set to hit the very real roads of Nevada soon. Google has been officially given the first license to test self-driving cars on public streets after conducting demonstrations on the very busy Las Vegas Strip and in Carson City. These cars have been deemed safe, perhaps even safer, than human-driven models.
Google’s self-driving Prius was programmed using laser radar to create a “virtual buffer zone” around obstacles. This gives the car an awareness of its surroundings, something human drivers may actually lack.
And the best part about this future technology? The reality of it for all of us isn’t that far away. Google expects to have them ready for the market in just 3-5 years.
Now if they could just work on talking models, too, like KITT.
You may be familiar with the flexible E-paper concept from the film Minority Report but it was also something mentioned in 1995 in Neal Stephenson’s novel The Diamond Age. With the advent and rise of tablet computers, it was only a matter of time before this became a reality. In fact, just last year, Sony showed off color e-paper displays at the 49th SID International Symposium, the world’s largest academic conference on display technologies.
Sony’s 13.3 inch flexible e-paper, which is made of a plastic substrate, is 150 microns thick and weighs just 20g. It has a 13% color gamut, a reflectance of 10% and a 100,000:1 contrast ratio. It is made by applying adhesive to a glass substrate and attaching a plastic substrate. Amorphous TFTs are then formed on it with a1 80°C or lower temperature process. The plastic substrate is then finally removed from the glass substrate.
Soon enough, we’ll be able to get rid of our smartphones and tablets and just carry around a folded up piece of e-paper in our back pockets.
Remember those bodies that soldiers used in Avatar in order to blend in with the natives of Pandora? Well, DARPA, a research wing of the U.S. Department of Defense, has revealed that it will be spending millions of dollars on a project it has appropriately decided to call “Avatar.” No, there won’t be blue-skinned alien bodies for soldiers to control, but there will be robots.
DARPA stated that the Avatar program will work on “interfaces and algorithms to enable a soldier to effectively partner with a semi-autonomous bipedal machine and allow it to act as the soldier’s surrogate.” More or less, this means that the DOD wants to create bipedal robot drones that are controlled by soldiers who are hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away from the war front.
It’s a creepy idea, to be certain, but the DOD would not have put so much money into it if the technology did not already exist to make it a sure thing. A bipedal robot has already been created by Boston Dynamics. And brain-computer interfaces are something that is certain to be viable in the very near future.
The Landspeeder (aka the Hover Bike)
Star Wars fans are very familiar with the land speeder, an anti-gravity craft seen throughout the universe created by George Lucas. But did you know that a prototype hover bike has already been developed?
Australian Chris Malloy built his first prototype (pictured) from motorbike parts and claims that it will eventually be able to theoretically fly at a speed of 173 mph and at an altitude of 3000 meters. The bike consists of a pair of massive propellers and is powered by a central four-stroke engine with a seat on top and a small fuel tank. The right handlebar controls the rotors thrust while the left adjusts the angle of the nose’s pitch.
For safety, Malloy does plan to add a pair of parachutes to the frame or require the rider to wear a parachute. He also hopes to implement gyroscopic controls with overrides that will prevent the vehicle from tipping over.
Fans of writer Lois McMaster Bujold may remember the memory biochip mentioned in her 1986 novel Shards of Honor. In the novel, users of the chip could playback memories at will. However, just recently, this very same technology was successfully tested on rats.
In a series of experiments, the rats were given an implant, a tiny array of electrodes, which was threaded from the top of their heads down to pieces of the hippocampus portion of the brain. This part of the brain is responsible for long-term memory. The two slivers of tissue communicate with other as the brain learns new information. The device is meant to transmit these exchanges to a computer. The rats were then trained and tested.
The implant, created by researchers at Wake Forest University and the University of Southern California, brings back a memory by recording and replaying the electrical activity of neurons in the hippocampus. Though still a long way from being tested in humans, it could eventually lead to repairing deficits in human memories due to dementia, stroke and other brain injuries.