The future: What technology has in store
From pregnant men ... to fabrics that laugh off stains. From cars that emit only water ... to toilets that tell you when you've had too much to drink. And from intercontinental hugs ... to robotic killing machines.
Saturday 11 November 2006
The future of the home, by Steve Connor
Dawn is about to rise on the house of the future. The first rays of the sun hit the high-efficiency solar panels built into the walls and the roof. Electrical energy begins to pulse once more into the building's storage batteries and soon the family home will be sending its spare power capacity back to the national grid, earning valuable carbon credits along the way.
In the main bedroom the dawn is a false one. A wall-sized screen gently glows with a high-definition recording of the family's favourite scene: a crisp, autumnal woodland. The low murmur of an avian dawn chorus and the subdued scent of wild flowers covered in a morning dew waft across the faces of the residents, rousing them from their sleep.
The man of the house is first to rise and takes a shower in water recycled from the previous night's dishwasher. The shower water will be used once more to flush the intelligent toilet before being sent on its way for further recycling at the local water-purification plant.
A bio-chip in the toilet basin analyses the man's waste for early signs of bowel cancer and other metabolic disorders. Urine markers sense that his blood cholesterol is still too high and his alcohol markers are once more elevated. The intelligent toilet sends a warning to his medical files about excessive alcoholic consumption the night before - making it three nights this week where he exceeded his recommended daily intake.
The bathroom sensors detect the woman's presence and organise her favourite aromatherapy programme. The smell of ginger and spice is soon being pumped into the shower cabinet to provide an invigorating spurt of much-needed endorphins, the natural opioids of the brain.
Down in the kitchen the man is preparing his breakfast. He opens the intelligent fridge to find that it has automatically ordered fresh stocks of his favourite yoghurt. The man speaks to the coffee maker in reply to its enquiry about the precise size of his "skinny latte, no sugar". He then asks the fridge to give a separate calorie readout of what he ate and drank at last night's dinner party - everything is voice-activated.
The flat-screen television comes on with a welcome from the home entertainment system. It automatically reads out the weather as it has been programmed to do each morning. It has already assimilated the coming week's temperatures into the house's intelligent climate-control system, which calculates the hour-by-hour ventilation needed to keep the air fresh and energy conserved.
The home entertainer asks whether the man would like to watch the news or the sport and if he would like it in two-dimensions or three. He asks for the sport and soon holographic images flick around a small platform above the kitchen table. The man watches highlights from last night's match played out on a miniature 3-D pitch but declines the offer of a surround-sound effect of the 50,000-strong crowd - he's still feeling delicate.
As other members of the household rise, the hydrogen fuel-cell generator begins to fire up into full load. Spare solar energy collected during the previous day was used to split waste water into hydrogen and oxygen - the explosive ingredients of rocket fuel. Now the hydrogen is being oxidised in the fuel cells to produce the peak-time power output. Nothing more toxic than a little waste water is emitted, and even that is quickly absorbed into the home's thirsty water-treatment system.
Everything about the home of the future is geared towards minimising waste and maximising efficiency. Spare hydrogen has been channelled into the garage overnight where it will be used in the car's fuel cells that power its engine.
The woman comes into the living room and enters the virtual granny-flat. Mother lives 200 miles away but every movement of the 125-year-old is monitored and recorded by a battery of sensors which update a virtual, mirror-image of her flat stored in her daughter's home computer. Mother is fine and is soon engaged in a conversation about how well she slept on her new lumbar-active mattress with embedded stem-cell therapy.
Overnight, the house released a horde of miniature robots the size of small cockroaches to clear up the mess from the previous evening's dinner party. Armed with electrostatic nano-particles and synthetic phagocytic cells, the microbots eat and digest every scrap of dust and dirt left on floors and other surfaces. The dust - mostly shed human skin - is sent for protein recycling for feeding to the cat and pet fish.
In the home of the future, nothing is wasted and nothing goes wrong. Just a dream?
The future of transport, by Sean O'Grady
After more than a century, we can safely say that the dominance of the traditional internal combustion engine will soon be drawing to a close. Like "King Coal" and the age of steam, the era of the automobile will, sooner than we think, pass into history. Or at least, the automobile as we have always known it. Indeed, were the world's governments, car manufacturers, energy companies and - most crucially of all - consumers so inclined, we could end the fossil fuel age very quickly indeed. The technology is there. We already have small electric cars that are useful for city driving, though admittedly not much else, and thoroughly practical and reliable petrol/electric hybrid cars such as the Toyota Prius.
More surprising, perhaps, is that the technology most people agree will replace the internal combustion engine in the longer term - the hydrogen fuel cell - is also ready to run. Honda have a hydrogen fuel cell car already on trial with a family in California (of course). Mercedes-Benz have also tested these cars and their hydrogen fuel cell buses have been seen on the streets of London. General Motors and Nissan also have prototype hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. They look fairly conventional, but they are radical: hydrogen reacts with oxygen inside the fuel cells, which produces electricity to power a motor that drives the wheels. This produces only water in the way of vehicle emissions. If the production of the hydrogen "fuel" itself could be made efficient we could move quickly forwards.
So that's what we'll drive. There's also how we will drive. Satellite navigation and radar will help cars "drive themselves". Sat-navs can track and keep us away from jams while even now radar helps some upmarket cars brake automatically if they sense trouble ahead.
Whatever they drive, though, it is safe to assume that motorists will be faced with more and more penalties simply for owning and running a car: congestion charging, tolls and the usual duties should all increase. That may slow down car use in developed economies; the real problem is in the huge emerging markets of Brazil, Russia, China, India and the rest. As in Europe and America in the past, a car will be seen as a precious means of personal freedom and a symbol of modernity and progress. Fine, but if they're all pumping out carbon dioxide ...
So we in the West will be pushed on to trains, literally. But three obstacles are blocking this line. First, even with investment in rolling stock and more light rail, the British rail network, denuded since cuts recommended by Dr Beeching's infamous report in the 1960s, can't cope with more people. How about more investment? That's the second obstacle: a lack of public enthusiasm for paying for that, at least in the UK. Few new major track- building exercises will be undertaken. Mag lev (magnetic levitation - fossil-fuel free) was once a great hope for the future, but recent serious accidents suggest that, too, may be a false hope. The privatised industry won't pay for much new capacity and the Government won't either (because there's no sign that us voters are ready to countenance the vast amounts of public spending involved. If only we'd listened to John Prescott and his "integrated transport" plans. Never mind). However, we may well see more and more "light trains" and tram systems supplementing existing lines - as we've already witnessed, with varying degrees of success, in Nottingham, Croydon, Manchester, Sheffield and London's Docklands. Third, the railways will always have a problem that they can never, by their nature, overcome: they cannot offer the door-to-door practicality of a passenger car or, more important, a delivery lorry. Another home truth for us.
Things don't get much better in the air. Aviation fuel is, by international treaty, untaxed. In the event that the governments of the world agree on a fuel duty regime, even that might not stem the trend for more air travel, terrorism notwithstanding. Two sub-trends will probably emerge. First, the growth in private jet and helicopter transport, often from smaller airports as, to put it bluntly, the rich buy their way past the check-in queues. Second, super-jumbos and increasing competition will offset the growing cost of fuel (taxed or not). "No-frills" long-haul flights may well become much more common.
Of course, the biggest trend in transport should be that there is less of it, and the travel that we do indulge in should be for pleasure rather than the grim business of getting to work. Given the information technology at our disposal, it ought to be within the wit of mankind to organise a working week in which one or two days are spent at home. Video conferencing, e-mail, networked home computers, Wi-Fi, broadband ... what more do we need to start the homeworking revolution?
The future of sex, by Jeremy Laurance
If you are thinking fun and frolics, think again. The future of sex is, well, sexless - at least as far as reproduction is concerned. Ever since Louise Brown was delivered in July 1978 as the world's first test-tube baby, doctors and fertility specialists have been working to take the uncertainty out of baby-making.
If the birth of Louise Brown made men dispensable - mere sperm producers - women will not be far behind. The first baby to be created, gestated and born entirely in the laboratory is in prospect, with developments in artificial wombs. US scientists have experimented with growing cells from the endometrium, the lining of the womb, using hormones and growth factors. Embryos placed in the laboratory-engineered tissue attached themselves and started to grow.
The advantage of an artificial womb is that the developing foetus would be protected from alcohol or drugs imbibed by the mother and the input of nutrients and removal of waste products could be strictly controlled. But it would not benefit from the protection of its mother's immune system, which would have to be artificially replicated.
The first male pregnancy has moved from science fiction to scientific possibility with developments in IVF involving the transfer of an embryo to the peritoneal cavity (the abdomen) of a man that has been specially primed by drugs to receive it. The embryo would implant in the wall of the male abdomen in the same way as in the wall of the female uterus, drawing its nutrients through the placenta. Men also have mammary glands, which remain dormant but have a lactating mechanism that can be triggered with the appropriate hormonal treatment.
Possibly even more challenging to our world view is the prospect of a baby born to a same-sex couple - gay or lesbian - which is genetically related to both partners. Scientists are working on making sperm and eggs from skin cells in a process known as haploidisation. This involves taking half the genetic material from the skin cell of one partner and injecting it into an egg from the other partner (in the case of a lesbian couple; a male couple would use a donor egg and both partners' genetic material would be injected), resulting in an embryo which contains half of both partners' genes.
The menopause as the upper age limit for female reproduction has already been breached and more women are set to follow the example of Patricia Rashbrook, Britain's oldest mother who gave birth in July, aged 62, after treatment abroad.
Although the risks to the mother rise with increasing age, the risks to the child are minimised by use of a "young" egg from a donor. The drawback is there is no genetic relationship between mother and child - though the new technology of egg freezing offers a way through this. Two babies have been born with the technique in England and 22 clinics are licensed to provide treatment.
Advances in freezing will revolutionise IVF by allowing women to store "young" eggs when they are in their twenties and thirties. Like Patricia Rashbrook, couples in the future may choose to delay parenthood until they are pensioners - but unlike her they may give birth to their own genetic offspring.
The future of fashion, by Hamish Morrow
Most fashion designers are still completely technophobic. And the main reason is that their customers, at the top end, don't want to wear clothes made from man-made fibres. As a designer myself, I'm interested in invention and I try to look forward. I want to find ways to use technology in an appropriate way. I'm really interested in technical sportswear and in the last couple of years I've been exploring how to use nanotechnology. It's a big subject, but with regard to fashion it involves the treatment of fabrics with technology that is imperceptible to the eye: one fabric I've been working with has a water-resistant finish that also resists stains. If you spill wine or coffee on it, a bead of liquid forms and it just runs off. Its structure mimics the surface of the lotus flower, which has microscopic hairs on its surface that prevent any water from being absorbed.
The sportswear giants Adidas and Nike have patents on certain branded fabrics that have "moisture wicking" properties, which is the process by which a fabric transfers sweat from the body surface to the outside of the fabric. But with nanotechnology you can apply a similar treatment even to luxury fabrics. So I can now make a jacket in satin-backed crepe, for instance, and if you really wanted to, you could run a marathon in it, and it would really perform. I've made very conceptual clothes before from Gore-Tex or Per-tex (a sleeping-bag nylon), but there is still a basic truth that people don't really want to wear polyester. Definitely not at £2,000 a go, anyway.
One of the most interesting prototypes I've seen recently is for flexible computer-type screens that might at some point become light enough to use for clothing. So, for instance, you would buy a Pucci dress and then each season you could download the new Pucci print on to it, rather than buy a new dress. Or, as you move around the city - in a kind of Wi-Fi experience - your print would change as it picks up different signals. I tried to do a crude version of that, by projecting a print on to a white garment, but it made me realise that you can lose yourself in a dreamscape sometimes and as a designer you need to relate to the here and now more than anything else. If you design purely for the future, well, that hasn't happened yet - although that said, I've never been into retro either. The problem with a lot of "futuristic" design is that its vocabulary actually originates in the 1960s, from the work of people like Courrèges, Cardin and Paco Rabanne - all that silver-and-white, the plastic clothes, it's actually retro.
I once did a specifically conceptual project called Fashion in Zero Gravity, where the idea was to consider how fabrics might behave without gravity. Space tourism is on our doorstep, essentially, and at some point there'll be recreation in space. In the 1960s, when designers considered space living, they imagined a blank piece of paper, that everything would be perfect and silver. But, of course, humans will take their defects and interests with them, and they'll want more than a jumpsuit - they'll want clothes that project status and wealth, sexual attraction, and how we wish other people would see us.
I can't make people interested in these new technologies, but hopefully they'll think the garment is beautiful enough to buy anyway. You have to introduce the technology in a stealthy way. And, maybe one day when they're caught in a rainstorm and their garment remains dry, they might say, "Wow!"
The future of the internet, by Rhodri Marsden
"I need to get on the internet." It's a phrase we utter every day if we've been asked a tricky general-knowledge question or we need to check the train timetable, but in a few years time the internet will be so ubiquitous and all-pervading that the notion of actually "going online" won't even be a conscious act.
Our mobile phones - or whatever über-gadget they've evolved into - will maintain a constant connection to it, while the development of smart materials will mean that everyday items will be hooked up as well; we laughed at the recent launch of the internet-enabled fridge, but soon our cars will be booking themselves in for services, we'll be able to operate our heat and lighting systems remotely - even our clothing will have a hotline to cyberspace. You'd like to give someone over the other side of the world a hug? Press a key on your mobile and let their jumper do the work. The line between the human body and the internet will be increasingly blurred, and we'll only really notice the internet if it stops working.
Vastly increased speeds of around 100Mbps will inevitably mean full-motion, high-definition video links to everyone, everywhere; the telephone will seem laughably archaic, even internet telephony or VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) will be old-hat, and actually managing to detach yourself from other people and spend a solitary few hours enjoying your own company will prove increasingly difficult. Social networks will blossom, with like-minded people finding it a cinch to meet and communicate; while some sociologists worry about our relationships becoming increasingly embedded in some kind of virtual reality, others see the internet reinforcing real-world, local communities as they rediscover each other in cyberspace.
The future of media is something that particularly exercises the imaginations of crystal-ball gazers. Many predict the death of the traditional newspaper format, as stories are broken exclusively on blogs, and demand for instant analysis rises. Experts seem even happier to predict the demise of television - both in terms of traditional TV network schedules, and the prominence of the TV set in the home.
Computers will undoubtedly form the hub of our living rooms, becoming true media centres through which we get all our visual and audio entertainment - with increasing amounts of consumer-produced content. Assuming that the big media companies manage to tackle the copyright issues effectively, there'll be two distinct strands of media - the commercial, which we pay for, and the open source, where the ease of creating sound and images will enable us to collaborate artistically across the internet in real time, and share the erratic results instantly with the world.
The educational possibilities offered by the internet are obvious, and in the future schools will become more able and more willing to embrace its full potential. While face-to-face sessions with teachers will still be vital, virtual classrooms will also thrive, with pupils instantly streamed into ability groups and the idea of self- paced, distant learning becoming more widespread.
In the world of health, while today's internet is merely a hypochondriac's paradise of misinformation and erroneous self-diagnosis, the internet will become an invaluable tool for doctors and health professionals to offer online help and advice to the patient, with information about blood pressure, temperature and heart-rate transmitted directly to them. Doctors won't be the only ones whose working practices will be radically overhauled; the hellish commute will be far less necessary as the internet enables seamless communication with co-workers, with our physical presence becoming superfluous. On one side, there'll be a lot less gossip going on around the water cooler; on the other, we'll be able to spend more time at home with our families. Swings and roundabouts.
It's easy to look at the future of the internet with a utopian glint in one's eye. But, for all the benefits coming our way, we will become increasingly dependent on it, and many have doubted its ability to cope with expansion. It's not a particularly robust structure - as the recent proliferation of spam and viruses has proved; keep your fingers crossed that cyber-criminals of the future won't be hacking into our jumpers, and giving us unwanted internet hugs at unexpected moments.
The future of war, by Andrew Buncombe
At a recent exhibition of new military technology one independent expert stood almost agog as the prototype for a new killing machine was rolled out. It went by the acronym of URV or Unmanned Robot Vehicle - and it looked like something from the movies. "It was frightening. The [URV] has laser radars at the front and these things were scanning up and down and from side to side," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.Org, a Washington-based military studies group. "It was the most Sixties, sci-fi thing I have ever seen."
Pike and others believe this is the future of warfare - or at least part of the future. Technology will increasingly allow the most sophisticated and best equipped militaries - primarily that of the US - to fight battles using robots rather than soldiers: robots which can detect, assess and attack a target. "Robots can kill without mercy, remorse or pity. They are all stone-cold killers," said Pike. "And we don't have to write letters to their families."
The US army is already developing an arsenal of robotic weapons that could be deployed within a decade or so. In the air, Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) are now being used extensively in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere - both for surveillance as well as dropping so-called "Hellfire" missiles. The US is trying to develop ways for UAVs or drones to work in swarms, attacking targets en masse or operating an aerial delivery system to cover an entire region.
Technology is also changing the nature of munitions. Already there are devastating thermobaric bombs which have more destructive power than any other conventional weapon, while microwave bombs or transient electromagnetic devices (TEDs), which release a massive burst of electromagnetic energy sufficient to disable computers without killing people, are also in development.
Space may become the next battlefield, and it is in this area that technology is really pushing at the boundaries. Reports in the US suggest that ideas either on the drawing board, or else already in development, include killer satellites that could destroy an enemy's satellites, a Common Aero Vehicle (CAV) that could swoop with hypersonic speed up to 3,000 miles to attack a target, Hyper-Velocity Rod Bundles which would fire tungsten bars weighing 100kg from a permanently orbiting platform - and even a space-based laser that uses mirrors to direct the sun's rays against ground targets. This last project - known as the Eagle or Evolutionary Air and Space Global Laser Engagement - was contained along with other such radical ideas in a 2004 Air Force plan to transform space into a weaponised zone.
Developments in the US and Israel in body armour have incorporated nanotechnology, greatly increasing its protective capabilities - in effect making it likely that there will soon be vests that can even stop armour-piercing rifle rounds. Improved personal protection, coupled with advances in medical technology, have meant wounded soldiers now have a better chance of survival. The ratio between dead and wounded among US troops in Iraq is one to eight, while in Vietnam it was one to three.
There is much debate in military circles about the way future wars will be fought. Max Boot, of the Council on Foreign Relations, believes technology will continue to be very important both for the US and its enemies. "I think that cyberwarfare and biotechnology are particularly threatening to the West because they - along with nuclear proliferation - will put more destructive capacity into the hands of ever-smaller groups of individuals," he said. "We need to keep innovating to find potential solutions - biotechnology can provide not only killer viruses but also lifesaving antidotes."
But Boot and others also highlight the increasing threat from non-traditional enemies - irregular foes and guerrillas who fight on "an asymmetric battlefield". Some go so far as to suggest that this new fourth-generation warfare has left conventional warfare outmoded.
Experts such as William Lind and Winslow Wheeler say confronting this enemy puts much higher value on intelligence, language skills and cultural understanding. "There are two visions for the future. One is weapons- and computer-driven. The other is the idea of fourth generation warfare against the sort of enemy we face in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Mr Wheeler, of the Centre for Defence Information (CDI).
Pike believes development will be driven by the US, whose military budget already matches the combined totals of the next dozen or so countries. Despite being three years into a war that has led to the death of around 2,800 US and 120 UK troops, and perhaps as many as 655,000 Iraqis, he is concerned that new technology will further encourage the US to military action rather than diplomacy. "Some fear it will lead to the lone super-power going on the rampage," he said. "If you think that people are fed up with America now, just give it time."
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