Innovations: To Infinity and Beyond

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    In the previous issue, I looked at things you could show off to your friends in under five years’ time. This time, we’re heading into the slightly more distant future with a look at things coming in perhaps 10 years or more. Or perhaps even next week. Who am I to say? 

    Mag? Neato!
    Maglev is possibly not a word you’re familiar with. If it is, it’s almost certainly because of the possibilities of virtually friction-free trains that sit a few centimetres above the rail thanks to the power of magnets. Magnetic levitation is where maglev comes from and it’s set to revolutionize rail travel in particular. The minimal friction means the trains use much less energy, making the per-kilometre costs very much lower. However, we all know how good rail companies are at passing on those savings, don’t we? Oh, and the best part is the speed. Tests have yielded speeds of around 550 km/h. You could book a ticket from Brussels to Barcelona at breakfast and be there in time to enjoy a spot of shopping before lunch. Provided, of course, the drivers aren’t on strike.

    Trains are all very well but to anyone other than the hardened trainspotter, they can be pretty dull and difficult to show off to your friends. How about a Blade Runner-esque charger for your mobile? Contactless charging is already here but a combination of charging without wires and a maglev charger, above which your pride and joy floats like a very expensive executive toy? Now we’re talking. There’s even talk of The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) working on a system whereby a simple voice command could make your phone sit up, switch on and await your every instruction, all while floating in the air. Form an orderly queue. 

    Small is beautiful
    Every year, we see a new trend in design. This year, big phones are in. Next year, they’ll be the size of a pen. One thing you can’t make smaller is an atom. Well, technically, you can but that still requires some expensive equipment. Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating matter at an atomic level. If you need some perspective, a sheet of newspaper is 100,000 nanometres thick. 

    The benefits of this technology may not be immediately apparent but new applications are being found every day. Apart from the important and pioneering work being done in the fields of medicine and engineering, nanotech, as it’s familiarly known, can be adapted to improve our everyday lives in some unexpected ways.

    Nano-engineered batteries and circuits could minimize the size of portable devices even further, while improving battery life and resistance to scratching, even to the point where glass and casings could self-heal. Your tablet could look like the day you bought it, however many times you used it as a placemat. In the food industry, tech is being developed that will detect salmonella and botulism in packaged food, alerting the consumer if that yoghurt that’s two days past its sell-by is actually OK or not.

    The future of power is also heavily reliant on nanotech, with practical applications of the science envisaged to become the saviour of the Earth, minimizing power consumption and maximizing power generation. Wafer-thin, flexible materials could be produced that would not only store power but generate it from heat, light and motion. These new ‘fabrics’ could be woven into clothing, making wearable tech a much more promising prospect.

    The potential downsides to this mucking around with things at an atomic level vary according to opinion. The more optimistic reckon we could create more issues than we solve. The really pessimistic, such as nanotech pioneer Eric Drexler, envisage a different scenario, in which self-replicating nanomachines harvest all the world’s carbon to copy themselves, converting all known life into what he called a “grey goo”. Still, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

    This year’s model
    Speaking of wearable tech, you probably think your fitness band or smart watch are the cutting edge. And you’d be largely correct. As cool as these things undoubtedly are for the geeks among us (I proudly include myself in that category), the next generations of wearable tech will be so subtle that you could sport the latest technology without looking as frankly stupid as you would wearing Google Glass. Motorola’s new Moto 360 smart watch sold out in two hours, primarily because it looked like a watch.  

    In years to come, you’ll put your smart device in your pocket, presuming we’re still doing mobile phones then. From that moment it’ll interface with the nanotech in the jacket or trousers, charging for free and feeding information to what look like regulation Ray Ban glasses. The small device attached to your ear like an earing would convey sound while monitoring your blood pressure and other vital signs. Your jacket will be one big aerial, so you can talk with no microphone. Sure, it’ll mean there are more people shouting things like “no, I haven’t seen your stupid keys” at apparently nobody. Still, it’s better than the grey goo option, isn’t it? Isn’t it?