Robots that can read social signals
Ever since scientists discovered ‘mirror neurons’ in primates in the 1990s, they’ve been working on recreating this capability in robots.
No wonder. Mirror neurons enable us to interpret the gestures and expressions humans use to communicate feelings. We do this by mirroring the body language of others. For instance, when we react to someone’s smile our mirror neurons fire up feelings associated with smiling, and we smile back.
Fast-forward to a robot that can ‘understand’ the intentions behind human social signals and interact appropriately. Scientists call this ‘intention decoding algorithms.’ The closest we’ve come is fitting spinal injury patients with brain-computer interface (BCI) devices that enable them to regain some use of their limbs. But Elon Musk’s BCI company, Neuralink, aims to go further and implant engineered wireless technology to correct neurological malfunction. We’re a long way off ‘mind-reading’, but for those with communication disabilities, robots that can read simple thoughts like “help me stand up” would be life changing.
The potential for eCommerce is also compelling. Imagine pre-empting customers’ choices! That’s why Amazon, Dyson, Miele and others are working on how to capture consumers’ intentions. Like television in the 50s and the World Wide Web in the 90s, intention decoding algorithms could be a major disruptor of consumer behaviour.
3D-printed organ transplants, anyone?
3D printing has been making three-dimensional objects from computer-generated designs since the 90s. What few predicted was that one day it would be used to create human organs.
If so-called ‘bioprinting’ sounds crazy, think again. In 1999, scientists at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina, US, used biocompatible plastic seeded with a patient’s own cells to print an artificial bladder, which was then implanted into his body. Ten years later it was still functioning.
So far, so impressive. However, 3D-printed organs that truly replicate the myriad structural characteristics and functions of live human tissue are yet to be achieved. It’s a huge undertaking involving cell biologists, engineers, materials scientists and more.
But a future without waiting lists, where you receive a bioprinted organ transplant made of living tissue complete with human cells, is getting closer. So says Dr Christophe Marquette of the French National Centre for Scientific Research: his team is working on it and we could be 20 years away from fully functioning, bioprinted, lab-grown, replica human organs.
But there’s one area that’s way ahead: bone replacement. Biomedical company Particle3D is currently developing 3D-printed biodegradable human bone implants, which could be on the market by 2022.
Space: the final frontier for solar power?
As we’ve discovered, the problem with renewable energy is that we can’t control it. When the sun doesn’t shine, solar panels don’t produce energy; when the wind doesn’t blow, neither do turbines. So, given that 100% renewable power is currently unfeasible, we’ve no alternative but to rely on fossil fuel-burning power plants to bridge the gap between supply and demand.
This looks set to change. Scientists now believe that, to quote Captain Kirk of Star Trek fame, the solution may lie in “Space: the final frontier.” Unlike rooftop panels, space-based solar power would generate 2,000 gigawatts of electricity constantly – that’s 40 times more than we can produce now, and with no greenhouse emissions or hazardous waste. Key players such as China Aerospace Science & Technology, are set to launch small solar satellites before 2025.
The US Space Solar Power Project has also developed a means of generating electricity in space and transferring it wirelessly back to Earth using radio frequency electric power. And Japan’s successful transmission of power using microwaves is another step forward.
It will take a while before we’re able to generate sufficient space-based solar power to meet global demand, but we’re on the way.
No one’s yet invented a real Harry Potter invisibility cloak capable of removing someone from view, but it’s coming. When BAE Systems unveiled their high-tech Adaptiv technology in 2011, they made a tank fade so effectively into its surroundings that neither night vision surveillance kit nor infrared targeting by aircraft could detect it. Like a chameleon, honeycomb-shaped modules covering its flanks can be cooled or heated very quickly, creating patterns that mimic its surroundings. Moreover, objects can be projected onto it so that a tank becomes a car – or even a cow!
The motor industry could benefit, too. Windscreen pillars have long been a safety issue: they’re crucial to structural integrity, yet they annoyingly block the driver’s sight line. In 2017, Toyota patented a ‘cloaking device’ with mirrors that bend images around the pillar, allowing drivers to see what’s on the other side. Simple, effective, and coming to a dealership near you.
Canadian company HyperStealth Biotechnology took it to another level in 2019 with Quantum Stealth, a metamaterial resembling sheets of transparent plastic. At the launch, CEO Guy Cramer was invisible until he stepped out from behind one. Just as sounds reach us via sound waves, images reach us via light waves; but Quantum Stealth cleverly diverts light around an object, creating a blind spot that renders it completely undetectable.