SOONISH: Ten emerging technologies that’ll improve and/or ruin everything – Kelly and Zach Weinersmith

The book introduced ten emerging technologies (in 2017) in the near future and its anticipated impacts on our lives in the near future. Most of these technologies face similar barriers, which are economic, technical, political/legal and environmental aspects.

1. Access to space

Reasoning that a much cheaper way to go to the space would benefit many people (currently it takes $10,000/pound as 2017), the author mentioned a few suggestions, some of them sound funny and crazy: reusable rockets, air-breathing rockets and spaceplanes, giant enormous mega-superguns, laser ignition, start at high altitude, and finally space elevators and space tethers. The space elevators seem to be the most possible way (but still sounds so funny).

Nevertheless, concerns are highly raised. If humanity gets cheap space access, there may be a sudden political squabble at the same moment a single nation gains the most powerful system in history. 

Notable event(s): Project Babylon.

2. Asteroid Mining

The asteroid near the Earth could be a sufficient source of energy, alternatively to current environment-threatening sources such as coal, oil and nuclear. However, people are facing technical difficulties such as landing on the asteroid, collecting a large amount of resources, being radiated, or even catching the whole asteroid. In case they could do it, they would have to face legal restrictions, the fact of having more elements that were rare before would also affect the whole world economy, and so on. The most threatening case is that we haven’t thoroughly understood how these substances work. It could simply blow the Earth. 

Notable events: Hayabusa2 craft of Japan had successfully brought back some more samples from an asteroid on Dec 6, 2020. The Tunguska event in 1908 was an explosion from an extraterrestrial object when landing on Earth, comparable to 185 times the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.

3. Fusion Power

The incoming excitement for scientists and politicians is fusion power, which may become a new source of clean and very powerful energy for the future. It could be generated during the process of fusion between two Hydrogen, creating a new element called Helium. Because it is from fusion reactions, not fission reactions (which were widely accepted in the previous century and then caused tremendous accidents, including making nuclear bombs, killing people in wars or making lasting radioactive radiation on Earth), therefore it is claimed to be safe, because Helium is a nonreactive gas, no greenhouse gases are produced and no long-lived radioactive waste. At the moment, the experiments are taking a lot of investment money and haven’t reached the breakeven point (where the input energy equals the output one). The most successful experiment of all is ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) in France. Notable events: Project Plowshare in a desert area of New Mexico in 1961, where scientists were testing a nuclear bomb to create molten salt, which is an excellent way to retain heat. It went wrong because some animals chewed through electric cables, creating a deadly cloud hung of radiation in the wind. That was when people started to raise concerns on radiation. Another example is Lake Chagan, where Russians artificially created this lake by a nuclear bomb.

4. Programmable matter

Making gadgets that could serve many functions (imagine Transformers). Some main projects are: Programmed materials (materials can transform themselves according to different environments); Origami robots (from a piece of paper-thin into a different shapes, these inventions can have many applications, from military and security to medicine. However the current origami bot designs are simple and have basic limitations); Reconfigurable houses (currently just an art project); and Robots working together (such as Roombots, M-Blocks. If working, it can lead to Bucket-of-Stuff – imagine Big Hero 6 movie). 

Concerns: hacking; ethical concerns on  giving agency to the materials (such as if they create accidents, who’s at fault?); personal security (materials can transform into weapons), and worse, the end of humanity (the swarms of autonomous robots can involve themselves just like tissue in the body, and take over humanity).

Applications: genetic algorithms for furniture (more customized home products for each individual), curing diseases with nanorobots (long way to go), industrial applications.

5. Robotic construction

Idea: replacing human workers to build houses. Current projects: Robotic construction workers; Giant 3D printers (pretty promising); Swarm robots (combining the idea of the swarm construction bot and with 3D printing).

Concerns:  jobs lost for many humans; people build many more houses than needed; wastefulness (easier to build bigger houses).

Applications: rapidly-built and cheap houses for poor people and refugees; developing countries rise more quickly; safer for humans in dangerous construction sites; making houses on other planets; 3D-printed foods.

6. Augmented Reality

Idea: people can take the real world and overlay virtual elements onto it (different from virtual reality – VR). Initial example: Pokemon GO.

Current method: using a mean (table, phone) to project an image into our eyes that is in registration with reality (the virtual stuff is cooperating with the real stuff).

Restrains: extremely difficult to achieve all, requiring great hard-software, understanding of human visions and cognition. AR and VR systems have a tendency to make you puke, due to motion sickness problem. Also, one big area of current research is how to use regular ambient markers to determine all the stuff a QR code might tell us (instead of marking all over one object to know what it is, a device would simply recognize the object).

The majority of current research is about visual technology (other senses are audio, smell, touch technologies).

Some current projects: Google Glass; Innovega AR contact lenses; DAQRI’s smart helmet.

Concerns: Serious privacy issues (personal information, intractability of projected objects to other people’s visions, etc), hacks, losing track of what’s artificial and what’s real.

Applications: in any situation in which we want to interact with reality and at the same time get more information (combat, surgery, construction, therapy, training…), AR might be useful. But mostly, it would probably be for entertainment, education.

(to be continued)

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