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Future of technology

01 Feb 2012

Will cybersex and cyber relationships begin to replace the traditional alternatives? What will become of the laptop computer? Will smell-o-vision replace television? Will we all be driving flying cars? What is nanotechnology? Will robots rule the world? Will teleportation be the new transit system? What is a smart home?We are all fascinated by the future, and after hearing that our futuristic technology section in NetGuide is a reader favourite, we thought it was time we looked a little more in depth at what the future of technology holds for us mortals.More than a decade has passed since we rung in the new millennium (and many of us feared the end of the world!) and we still haven’t welcomed time machines, holiday homes on Mars or any of the other Jetson-esque visions so many of us predicted. But even though the technological innovations we’ve seen haven’t been as drastic or as mind blowing as we may have hoped, technology has been progressing at a rapid pace and we’ve seen some pretty amazing developments.  This article looks at how far we have come in the tech world and where we might be headed over the next few decades!ROBOTSThe robot is one futuristic technology that is no longer really seen as futuristic. Robots are used every day in factories around the world. The robots used for laborious factory work are probably not the futuristic robots you are picturing, but they are impressive nonetheless. As for the idea of robots taking over the world, that probably won’t become a reality any time soon, but we do have some pretty life-like robots out there these days. Here, we present you with eight amazing real-life robots you won’t believe exist!Rugby RobotsIf you checked out the Robotics World Cup last year (part of the Rutherford Innovation Showcase), you would have seen some amazing rugby playing robots right here in New Zealand. Former All Black first five-eighth and goalkicker Andrew Mehrtens competed against three kiwi-designed goal-kicking robots in October.The robots included two humanoid machines from Massey University’s Albany and Palmerston North campuses, the former fitted with an actual rugby boot. The third entry, from a group of Canterbury University undergraduate students, was shaped more like a small swing set, although it did have the ability to take a drop-kick as well as a place-kick, unlike the others.Of the robots, the booted Massey Albany machine proved the most reliable, achieving impressive distance and accuracy. The robot from Massey Palmerston North was hindered early on by an ‘injury’ (air leak) but was achieving the biggest kicks by the end of the morning. The Canterbury University machine fared okay with its place kicks, but never managed to slot a drop kick, due to difficulties matching the release to the swing.In the end, a draw was declared between Mehrtens and the Massey Albany robot, which finally slotted a kick from wide out after numerous attempts.Should we be welcoming the next generation of All Blacks?The CubinatorThe Cubinator made its debut at the 2010 World Maker Faire. This robot currently holds the Guinness world record for fastest machine solve of a Rubik’s cube. Developed by Pete Redmond as the final project for his master’s degree, the Cubinator can solve the Rubik’s cube in an average of 25 seconds. Webcams in the robot’s eyes detect the colours on the cube and the machine solves the puzzle by using an algorithm to find the fewest moves. It also has a sense of humour shouting "oh dear!” when it occasionally drops the cube.The SnackbotIf a few million more of these guys are developed, we humans won’t ever have to worry about waiting tables or fetching our own half-time snacks again! A team at Carnegie Mellon University developed Snackbot to "support research into robust autonomous operation in office environments.” That’s science talk for "we built an awesome robot that can deliver snacks!” The robot can navigate through congested areas in a socially acceptable fashion, detect individual people in its path, recognise when someone that it knows approaches and autonomously learn to recognise new objects.DOMODOMO is probably the stereotype we think of when we think "robot”. The doctoral work of Aaron Edsinger at MIT, DOMO can accomplish all kinds of cool tasks like making a drink, helping with chores, tracking an object and interacting with people. To watch a video of DOMO in action, check out tinyurl.com/34c6ghEMILYBaywatch is about to become even more unrealistic. Meet EMILY (Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard), the robot lifeguard. It may not be able to compete with Pamela Anderson in the looks department, but PopSci.com reported that it made 77,192 rescues in one year. The first EMILY was remote controlled, but now, a fully autonomous version using a sonar device to scan for underwater movements is patrolling beaches across the United States, including Malibu’s dangerous Zuma Beach. How does it work? EMILY patrols the water solo or can be thrown into the sea from the beach, a helicopter or a ship. Its sonar finds a distressed swimmer and it jets toward them at 28 mph. The swimmer holds onto EMILY as it gently brings them into shore or waits for a lifeguard. The robot can travel up to 80 miles on a single battery charge.SeaswarmEMILY’s not the only bot making its rounds of the beaches. In response to the recent oil spills, a team at MIT developed a fleet of robots that are equipped with a nanomaterial that can absorb 20 times their weight in oil. These robots will travel beaches affected by oil spills to clean up the disaster more efficiently. Each machine communicates with the other machines via GPS and Wi-Fi to "create an organised system for collection that can work continuously without human support.”LandwalkerAvailable to the general public through Sakakibara Kikai, few articles express the frightening enormity of the Landwalker robot better than this write-up by the Gizmag technology blog: "This bipedal monstrosity stands at 3.4 meters in height, weighs 1,000 kilograms and moves along at the speed of 1.5 kilometers per hour with its 250cc four-stroke engine. In spite of the slothlike pace it travels at, Landwalker’s mere functionality can inspire immediate bowel evacuation. Stepping straight out of science fiction and nightmares, the human-powered exoskeleton comes equipped with two massive guns mounted on each side of the cockpit. At the moment all they shoot are light, harmless balls, but the obvious military applications of this stand as either highly disconcerting or ragingly exciting depending on one’s inclinations. Any enthusiastic mecha geeks can slam down $345,000 for a Landwalker, which is a fine sum when one considers how much revenge can be had for all those wedgies in high school.” Well said!RoxxyMany mainstream and alternative media outlets, including Huffington Post, Fox News, Slate, Telegraph and the Boston Herald (among others) have opened up about the controversial Roxxxy. Scantily clad, customizable, weighing in at 120 pounds and programmed for scintillating conversations about sports and other hobbies that supposedly interest all masculine kind, creator and founder of True Companion Douglas Hines has taken the Real Doll concept to the next inevitable phase with this robotic girlfriend. Think of her as a cross between cybersex and real dolls – Roxxxy comes with a multitude of different sexual personalities and costs anywhere between $7,000 to $9,000. Yikes. And if you’re a heterosexual woman, not to worry, a Rocky model is on the way...CYBER RELATIONSHIPSFor those of us not quite ready (or not quite insane enough...) to drop thousands of dollars on a robotic partner, it’s good to know that alternatives are still available.  Online dating is now widely accepted as a valid, convenient and fun way of meeting like-minded people. Countless people worldwide have turned to online dating and had great success, meeting both friends and life partners using online services. Although there has traditionally been some scepticism around the idea of online dating, people are quickly discovering that in today’s society, it actually makes a lot of sense.We’re not saying there is anything wrong with the more traditional methods of finding a partner (or shacking up with a robot if that’s what you’re into...) but these days we’re all getting busier and busier and these traditional methods of meeting someone are becoming less and less realistic. Think about it – we often rush about our daily activities with our "I’m in a hurry, leave me alone” faces firmly in place, and our leisure activities are becoming predominantly screen oriented (spent in front of televisions, computers, smart phones, tablets and so on) with much less focus on in-person social activities.  Let’s face it, we no longer live in the days of Jürgen Habermas’ public sphere (the idea that an area in social life exists where individuals can come together to freely discuss and identify societal topics and problems – like 18th century coffee houses). Today, when you picture a typical coffee house (like Starbucks) images of bustling, stressed out business people planted in front of newspapers, laptops or with a phone glued to one ear (and sometimes all of the above!) is probably what springs to mind.The rising popularity and preference that most people have for email over phone or in person interaction is a clear example of the nature of socialization today. "I think people prefer to communicate via email because it gives them a chance to respond at their own leisure and really think about what they are going to say, and I think this is one of the huge benefits of online dating,” says Erin Hamberg, a psychology student and avid user of the dating site ‘Plenty of Fish’ (plentyoffish.com). "Plus, by talking to someone before meeting them, you can make a real connection based on your similar tastes or personalities, as opposed to one that might be based on more superficial and less important characteristics,” she adds.But traditional online dating sites like Plenty of Fish and NZDating.com have been around for quite some time already, and with the rise of smartphones and social media, we are beginning to see a new wave of cyber dating options. One such option is the new social networking site Blendr: "Blendr is a social networking experience unlike any other. Using your mobile device’s location-based technology, you can connect with others nearby with similar interests, hobbies, professions and much more. Discover the world around you, make friends, build connections and explore your surroundings. Blendr makes it easy to take that first step.”In other words, Blendr lets you use your smartphone to make instant connections with others in the same vicinity. So for example, you might be at the gym and notice (via Blendr) that there is a man/woman your age with similar interests looking for a workout buddy. You can then get in touch with them immediately to get the ball rolling. Whether you find the idea creepy and invasive or brilliant and revolutionary, it’s certainly something we expect to see more of in the future, as technology becomes further and further integrated into our daily lives.Another (similar) option comes in the form of an app. Street Spark is an augmented reality dating application for the iPhone that allows you to see other single people who are around you and send them private messages. To avoid being spammed or stalked by weirdos, if you spot someone you like you can express your interest by ‘igniting’. If they reciprocate by igniting you back then you’ll be able to view their full profile and chat. If you don’t get on then you can simply ‘extinguish’ the spark and they can’t bother you again. Since you are more likely to get a spark if you have completed a good profile and uploaded a decent picture, the format should work well.Rather than attempt to match you with people 50 miles away, with Street Spark you are able to sign into HotSpots. So let’s say you visit Auckland – Ponsonby, you can sign into the area and see who else is using the application around you, and that’s where the augmented reality view comes into effect.  Holding up the phone enters SparkView, which shows you where your matches are located, how far away they are, your compatibility match rating as well as the all important profile picture.THE SMART HOMEThey say there’s no place like home – and that would certainly be true if this concept becomes a reality. A prototype for the smart home called Home ICT was developed by Japanese telecommunications company, NTT, and showcased at a "next-generation technologies” conference in August 2010.The concept is to merge all of your household devices and appliances, transforming your home into an almost living, thinking organism. The web of appliances would then be controlled by one unified "Home Gateway,” such as a cell phone or television, and all of the appliances and devices would work together rather than being controlled by separate remotes and functioning independently of one another.So for example, if an earthquake were to occur, your house would actually notify you by displaying a warning on the television screen, while simultaneously and automatically turning off all gas mains in the house, closing the curtains and sounding an alarm.But Home ICT doesn’t stop at safety.  Other applications would include crime prevention through lock confirmation from mobile phones and the ability to control keys, lights, sensors and home appliances from outside the home; energy saving through controlled energy consumption; entertainment through shared photos and videos across different devices; healthcare through the recording and tracking of daily health data and guidance from specialists; and one-stop support for any issues with your new home along the way.Some scientists have taken this idea a step further, integrating day to day chores such as cleaning and cooking into the equation, essentially eliminating the need for maids and nannies or freeing up time for busy parents. This version of Home ICT is slightly further away in the future, but technology is rapidly taking steps towards making this smart home a mainstream reality.SMELL-O-VISIONReleasing scents during the projection of a film reportedly predates the introduction of sound. One early attempt at "Smell-O-Vision” involved a wad of cotton soaked in rose oil being placed in front of an electric fan during a newsreel in 1906. But despite such experiments, this is one technology that just hasn’t taken off. However, failed past attempts hasn’t stopped French company Olf-Action from continuing the quest to add an extra olfactory experience to movies and video games. The company has recently created SMELLIT - a device designed to bring an aromatic dimension to your video game and movie experiences.Resembling a collection of mini jet turbines mounted on a pole, the SMELLIT isn’t ready to hit stores just yet, but made an appearance at the 2011 Lisbon Design Show in Portugal. Increasing the chances that the SMELLIT will actually garner a release is the fact that Olf-Action already produces a system for cinemas and home use called Odoravision, which synchronizes the diffusion of odours with onscreen action.If it does actually go into production, we’d expect the SMELLIT to use the same kind of cartridge system employed with the Odoravision system, with Olf-Action offering a wide variety of different cartridges for that system on its website. These include "smell of fir,” "smell of cakes,” "smell of naked body” and the less appetizing "smell of polluted cities,” "bad smells” and "bathroom odour.” Yuck.While we can’t envision smell-o-vision skyrocketing to popularity any time soon, we can expect smart TVs to become more and more mainstream as newer models continue to emerge and other brands jump on the smart TV bandwagon, driving down prices.  If you’re not familiar with the term ‘smart TV’, all you really need to know is that, like a smartphone, a smart TV offers a number of internet-connected services that normal televisions can’t offer. These televisions give you access to apps, media streaming, web browsing, games and Internet Protocol Television (IPTV). IPTV is a specific internet video standard, but is also used nowadays as shorthand for any video streamed via the internet to your TV. It can take the form of short clips or continuous "live” channels.THE PERSONAL COMPUTERA few months back we did a feature called "is the laptop dead?” and the final verdict seemed to be "not yet.” However, as the months have gone on and we have seen more and more tablets hitting the market and new and improved versions in the works, it seems like the future will probably hold a more definite (and not so favourable) outcome for the laptop. That’s not to say that the laptop will die out altogether, but it certainly won’t exist in the same way or form it does now.Currently, the tablet has some obvious drawbacks when compared to the laptop. First of all, it doesn’t have a keyboard or mouse, which is a major part of how we interact with our computer. This makes things difficult for people like me – who spend a lot of time typing – as a touch screen keyboard simply doesn’t cut it! It also can’t hold as much data as a laptop, has a smaller screen (again, an issue for many people), is not adequate for things such as graphic design, doesn’t offer any advanced audio equipment, and so on. So at this point in time, the laptop still has an edge up on its competitor.That being said, Craig Richardson, Managing Director of Jade Software, believes that it is only a matter of time before the tablet catches up. "A lot of the time, the hardware is ahead of the software, which is what we are seeing with the tablet,” he says. "I think we are waiting for the next generation of software to emerge, which will solve many of the current issues people have with tablets and allow them to become much more interactive.”There is so much effort currently going into developing software for smart devices, with better memory storage and computation as the current challenge, it is easy to imagine the next breed of tablets. It is not so easy, however, to imagine the next breed of laptops.Richardson also mentioned that during his experiment using only a tablet on a recent business trip, he did have to make some adjustments and sacrifices and it did cause him to change the way he worked. However, he felt strongly that this new way of working could easily become the norm rather than the exception, especially as we continue to see advancements and improvements to the tablet.One possibility we may see in the not-so-distant future is the laptop forming a hybrid with smart devices. We are already beginning to see this with several major laptop manufacturers, whether on the market already or in the working prototype stage. Some of the hardware providers bridging the gap include Acer, Lenovo, HP, Dell and Asus.  So perhaps we are not facing a future where one technology will wipe out the other, but it might not be the case that the tablet and the laptop will coexist either. Instead, perhaps we will see a new development altogether, as the tablet and the laptop begin to merge resources, offering the best of both worlds.NANOTECHNOLOGYTake a random selection of scientists, engineers, investors and the general public and ask them what nanotechnology is and you will receive a range of replies as broad as nanotechnology itself. Most of the general public think of science fiction when they think of nanotechnology, but what many people don’t realise is that scientists have been working at the nanoscale for decades, through electron microscopy, scanning probe microscopies or simply growing and analysing thin films. For some scientists, however, nanotechnology represents the possibility for something far more ambitious: miniature submarines in the bloodstream, little cogs and gears made out of atoms, space elevators made of nanotubes and the colonisation of space.So how far are we from seeing this type of sci-fi nanotechnology in everyday life? Well, in the last 15 years over a dozen Nobel prizes have been awarded in nanotechnology. Over 600 companies are currently active in nanotechnology, from small venture capital backed start-ups to some of the world’s largest corporations such as IBM and Samsung. Governments and corporations worldwide have ploughed over $4 billion into nanotechnology in the last year alone. Almost every university in the world has a nanotechnology department, or will have at least applied for the funding for one.Even more significantly, there are companies applying nanotechnology to a variety of products we can already buy, such as automobile parts, clothing and ski wax. Nanotechnology is already all around us if you know where to look.Even more exciting - the idea of shrinking machines down to the size where they can be inserted into the human body (in order to detect and repair diseased cells) is quite close to becoming a reality. Many companies are already in clinical trials for drug delivery mechanisms based on nanotechnology.Of course there’s always been the fear that nanotechnology will lead to the unleashing of hordes of self-replicating devices that escape from the lab and attack anything in their path.  But if you think about it, such devices have already existed in nature for several hundred million years. Naturally occurring nanomachines that can replicate and mutate to avoid eradication, as well as travel with alarming ease and speed through the atmosphere – otherwise known as viruses – are pesky little things that we are all too familiar with, and there is certainly nothing sci-fi about them!  Thankfully, our immune systems combined with modern medicine and technology can put these nanobots in their place pretty quickly.FLYING CARSWouldn’t it be great if we could soar over traffic jams and get to our destinations in a fraction of the time? Moller’s latest SkyCar M400 was developed with just this idea in mind. Dubbed a VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) vehicle, the SkyCar M400 can cruise through the air at up to 13, 200 feet and at a maximum speed of 375 miles per hour.Although this isn’t the first flying car to see the light of day, previous versions were merely prototypes and were only able to fly on a limited basis and not very far. With this latest innovation from Moller, industry experts are predicting that the vision of every day flying cars will become a reality within 25 years, if not sooner.Of course, there will be a lot of planning required and many obstacles to overcome before flying cars can become mainstream. How would traffic laws and rules of the road work? Would everyone have to switch to flying cars or would regular cars still be available as well? What would happen in the case of a car crash in the air and how would we deal with this? Not to mention the inevitably high costs for such contraptions.TELEPORTATIONPhysics and magic are often confused for one another, and it’s no wonder! In 2008, a team at the University of California, Berkeley, announced that it had developed materials that could lead to the real-life version of Harry Potter’s "invisibility cloak”. In 2009, a group of researchers at Harvard University and the National Institutes of Health reported that it had accomplished levitation (on a minor scale) causing a microscopic sphere of gold to rise above a glass surface. Now, a team of scientists from the Joint Quantum Institute (JQI) at the University of Maryland and the University of Michigan have announced that over the past few years they have been working on the art of teleportation. So does this mean the end of exhausting air travel and time consuming road trips? Not quite.At this point in time, teleportation is not a matter of moving matter but one of transporting information. So far, physicists have been able to exchange information between light particles (or photons) or between atoms, across a limited amount of space.In a PopSci article discussing the seemingly impossible physics of Star Trek, Michio Kaku, co-creator of string theory, professor and author told readers, "quantum teleportation already exists. For the past 10 years, we’ve been teleporting photons as well as atoms of cesium and rubidium and terbium. The world record is 1,800 feet, across the Danube River. I suspect very soon that we will be teleporting molecules. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the coming decades, we are able to teleport DNA, or maybe even a virus. But beyond that, it starts to get very difficult. You have to entangle two atoms, they have to vibrate in unison, and that is very difficult beyond the molecular level. But, Star Trek takes place in the 23rd century, so maybe by then we can teleport 100 trillion cells, which is about the number of cells in a human body.”Pretty exciting stuff!