10 life-changing innovations

| September 30, 2017 | 0 Comments
Corpsman Tim Sudduth demonstrates the Virtual Reality (VR) parachute trainer, while Aviation Survival Equipmentman Jackie Hilles controls the program from a computer console. Military personnel wear the VR glasses learn to control their movements through a series of computer-simulated scenarios.

Corpsman Tim Sudduth demonstrates the Virtual Reality (VR) parachute trainer, while Aviation Survival Equipmentman Jackie Hilles controls the program from a computer console. Military personnel wear the VR glasses learn to control their movements through a series of computer-simulated scenarios.

The future is not what it used to be. French poet Paul Valéry coined this phrase to describe the cultural pessimism that had gripped Europe after the First World War. Valéry — like so many of his contemporaries — had lost faith in the inevitability of progress that had defined the period leading up to 1914. It was a period of rapid technological advancement that promised boundless prosperity, if not for all, then, at least, for many.
We, of course, know that this metaphysical land of promise eventually yielded to the trench-scarred killing fields of Europe.
Valéry’s mournful disappointment in the future is understandable and universally appreciable. Flip through periodicals of past decades and you are likely to experience a touch of embarrassment over the predictions that filled their pages. A century after the debut of Glen Curtiss’ Autoplane in 1917, we are still waiting to take possession of our own flying cars.
But the long wait may be approaching an end. U.S-based Terrafugia currently accepts reservations for The Transition, a plane-car hybrid whose wings fold up when travelling on the road. The company says the TF-X has the potential to revolutionize the way we all get around. The all-electric vehicle can take-off and land vertically and the flight will be computer-controlled.
Slovakia’s AeroMobil vehicle has a sticker price of between $1.3 million and $1.6 million US and caters to an exclusive group of customers who will need a driver’s and pilot’s licence. It transforms from a car with fold-up wings to an airplane in fewer than three minutes. There are also plans for a self-driving model.
It would be hard to deny that that this phenomenon is just a fancy. Established companies from both the automobile and aircraft industries are directing resources into forms of aerial transportation that promise to break the conceptual bounds of personal transport to deal with urban transport issues and congestion.
But, the future takes time and less optimistic contemporaries might point out that the first two decades of the 21st Century bear an eerie similarity to the opening decades of the 20th Century: rapid technological progress against the backdrop of quickly changing social norms and of rabid nationalism. This said, the future could be happening sooner than many might imagine without the bloodshed of the 1910s. The late German-American economist, Rudi Dornbusch, once offered a theory about the pace of events. Things, he said, take a much longer time coming than you think, and they happen much faster than you would have thought. Inspired by this insight, we have chosen 10 technological developments that may soon fundamentally change our lives, if they have not already. This list is subjective and will inevitably disappoint those who might be looking for the latest whiz-bang gadget. It has instead chosen to focus on the larger phenomenon of the near future with illustrative examples for each category. This list is far from complete, but it is intended to be thought-provoking by pointing to ethical questions that might arise as these new technologies affect our lives. And, of course, we hope it arouses readers’ curiosity — as it has ours — about the future.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stunned observers when he answered a question about quantum computing at a visit to the Perimeter Institute – Canada's premier theoretical physics establishment. (Photo: YOUTUBE)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stunned observers when he answered a question about quantum computing at a visit to the Perimeter Institute – Canada’s premier theoretical physics establishment. (Photo: YOUTUBE)

1. Quantum computers
Soon, perhaps even by the end of 2017, Google will present the world’s most powerful quantum chip. As the New Scientist reported in June, the chip would make Google the first company to build a quantum computer capable of solving problems beyond the abilities of ordinary computers, and doing it by drawing on quantum mechanics.
Other technology companies, large (Intel, IBM, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard) and small (including Canada’s D-Wave Systems), are also betting big on quantum computing. So what is the difference between quantum and ordinary computing? Quantum computers consist of quantum bits or qubits that exploit the odd properties of quantum mechanics, such as superposition that allows a qubit to do two things at once.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described this aspect perfectly when he defined quantum computing while visiting the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in April 2016. “A regular computer bit is either a one or a zero, either on or off. A quantum state can be much more complex than that, because we know things can be both particle and wave at the same time and the uncertainty around quantum states allows us to encode more information into a much smaller computer.”
Trudeau’s definition of quantum computing points to the potential of quantum computers. They promise to perform calculations that current computers are incapable of performing within a practical time frame. Tasks that might take decades could take mere days or hours and experts predict that quantum computing could outperform the world’s fastest supercomputer and then all computers ever made, combined, according to Newsweek.
Oxford’s David Deutsch, the father of quantum computing, already foresees a future in which a quantum computer would prove the existence of multiple universes.
Setting aside such grand theories, the practical application of quantum computing in fields such as finances, engineering and energy is approaching a tipping point that will force us to re-evaluate the very nature of computers.
“The power of quantum computing is rediscovering all the problems that computers cannot solve, and having a path to solving them,” Dario Gil, IBM’s vice-president of science and solutions, told The Economist. “It’s a reorientation of what we think about computers.”
This reorientation appears strong in Canada, which recorded 79 quantum computing patent applications in 2015, a figure behind only the United States (295) and ahead of G7 members Japan (78) and the United Kingdom (36). China rounded out the Top 5 with 29. Other figures confirm this commitment. Of the $1.5 billion spent on quantum-related research around the world in 2015, Canada accounted for $100 million, according to the management consultant company,. McKinsey. This figure means that Canada ranks among the highest per-capita spenders on the technology, a fact that might help explain Trudeau’s familiarity with the subject.
2. Virtual reality

Militaries around the world are increasingly incorporating virtual reality into their training and into the treatment of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. (Photo: IMAX)

Militaries around the world are increasingly incorporating virtual reality into their training and into the treatment of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. (Photo: IMAX)

Little fanfare greeted the opening of IMAX’s first public virtual reality (VR) centre in Los Angeles in February of this year. But as Forbes’ Mark Hughes wrote, the centre might well mark VR’s “first big leap toward finally” becoming a permanent part of mainstream gaming, cinema and media in general. VR — the use of computer technology to create a simulated environment — departed the realm of science fiction several years ago with the first VR goggles. Facebook’s 2014 purchase of VR startup Oculus for $2 billion speaks to the commercial interest and cultural currency the technology has generated. Ryan Holmes — the founder and CEO of Vancouver-based social media company Hootsuite — wears VR goggles in his Facebook profile picture. To be fair, VR has not yet lived up to the unusually stratospheric expectations that followed the industry’s arrival on the technology scene. Global revenues from the sales of VR technology have failed to fulfil the hype so far, because the equipment remains expensive and lacks content from those industries most likely to embrace the technology: gaming and films. But both industries are shedding their inhibitions.
While the initial list of games available at IMAX’s inaugural VR centre appears to be relatively short, featuring familiar science-fiction fare, developers are filling the pipeline with new titles as the company expands across North America. The company is also exploring various synergies with Disney, software companies and film studios to bring more VR content to the masses. Other Hollywood actors — some new, others more established — also want a piece of the action.
Dreamscape Immersive plans to open more than a dozen VR multiplex cinemas within fewer than two years’ time that would offer interactive experiences lasting 10 minutes for approximately $15 each. Established studios (Fox, Warner Brothers and MGM) along with such Hollywood royalty as Steven Spielberg, have invested in the company. But if gaming and film are the most obvious industries to embrace VR because of its wow factor, the technology also lends itself to perhaps more practical uses. Medical leaders already foresee a future in which doctors would use VR for surgical training, patient recovery and meditation, among other uses. VR goggle users can already choose from various relaxing make-believe locations.
Some ideas have already had their test runs. In 2016, audiences around the world could tune into the world’s first operation streamed live in 360-degree video as surgeons at the Royal London Hospital treated a cancer patient. Militaries around the world are increasingly incorporating VR into their training and into the treatment of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. VR also promises advantages on the battlefield. The Norwegian army has field-tested (but not introduced) VR goggles to help tank drivers see through the fog of war, overlaying vital information in the same way that video games might do it. While the results did not entirely satisfy the brass, they clearly point towards the future.
3. Autonomous transportation

The Slovakian company, AeroMobil, promises to deliver its flying cars (one model pictured above) to customers by 2020. A model was unveiled by the Prince of Monaco at a car show in April. “Today is a transformative day for the future of travel as the launch of the AeroMobil means that everyday flying transportation will soon be a reality,” AeroMobil CEO Juraj Vaculik said, when he also announced the company was now ready to take pre-orders for up to 500 units. (Photo: Aeromobil)

The Slovakian company, AeroMobil, promises to deliver its flying cars (one model pictured above) to customers by 2020. A model was unveiled by the Prince of Monaco at a car show in April. “Today is a transformative day for the future of travel as the launch of the AeroMobil means that everyday flying transportation will soon be a reality,” AeroMobil CEO Juraj Vaculik said, when he also announced the company was now ready to take pre-orders for up to 500 units. (Photo: Aeromobil)

Is Tesla’s Model 3 the 21st-Century equivalent of Ford’s Model T? Or is it just another curiosity in the evolving continuum of vehicles that advertise the ability to drive themselves? Tesla’s Model 3 promises autonomous driving for the masses, as owners will receive monthly software and hardware updates through the company’s Autopilot program, as do those who own its Model S and Model X cousins. The electric-powered vehicles not only have stylish curves and the hardware for hands-off driving, but also a starting price tag of $35,000, a figure far below earlier Tesla models.
Whether the Model 3 marks a commercial breakthrough for autonomous vehicles remains to be seen. Tesla has announced it has sold out of the first 400,000 vehicles that rolled off assembly lines in July 2017 and is already planning another production run of 500,000. But these figures appear small in light of global sales figures. Americans alone purchased 17.5 million new automobiles in 2015. The self-driving features of the Model 3s also come with a premium. Would-be owners must purchase the features separately and years will likely pass before they can use them.
Tesla’s charismatic CEO, Elon Musk, has acknowledged that his revolutionary ambitions depend on his ability to convince authorities that autonomous vehicles are as safe, if not safer than current categories. Tesla has been working towards this proof and Musk told an audience earlier this year that Tesla vehicles could reach the fourth level of autonomous driving within two years: Vehicles would be able to drive themselves, but not in all conditions or environments. (SAE International, a global association of engineers and related experts in the aerospace, automotive and commercial-vehicle industry identifies six categories of automation, from zero (no automation) to five (full automation.) Genuine fifth-level autonomous driving — Tesla’s goal — is therefore still years away.
And yet, there’s no question that autonomous cars are getting better and the regulatory environment is becoming less uncertain. While some question the hype, the stock market performance of companies such as Tesla signals long-term confidence in the direction of the industry as experts such as IHS Automotive forecast that nearly 21 million self-driving cars will be on the road across the globe by 2035.
Others hedge their bets. Todd Litman, of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute (VTPI), noted that current automated vehicles can only self-drive under limited conditions. “Significant technical and economic obstacles must be overcome,” he wrote in a VTPI paper, “before most households can rely on them for daily travel.” Ethical questions also abound: Who bears responsibility for traffic deaths that involve autonomous vehicles? How will autonomous vehicles distinguish between the lives of passengers and other traffic participants? Finally, what is autonomous about trusting algorithms to do the driving?
4. Geo-engineering

Geo-engineering promises radical solutions for places such as the beleaguered Arctic in their battle against climate change. (Photo: Jaymantri)

Geo-engineering promises radical solutions for places such as the beleaguered Arctic in their battle against climate change. (Photo: Jaymantri)

The announced withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change ironically gave proponents of geo-engineering a boost. If humanity will not be able to keep the global temperature from rising 1.5 to 2.0 degrees Celsius, as per the Paris Agreement, other more radical solutions will draw more interest.
The literature distinguishes between two categories of possible geo-engineering solutions: those that capture and store GHGs, such as carbon dioxide, already found in the atmosphere and oceans, and those that reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the planet. Illustrative examples of the former include planting trees or flooding the oceans with lime to prevent acidification, examples of the latter include seeding clouds or floating thousands of tiny mirrors into the atmosphere to make the planet reflect heat from the sun away from Earth.
Many of these schemes have not evolved beyond the conceptual stage and come with various drawbacks. Schemes to capture and store carbon bear few risks, but are expensive and only effective in the long run. “Dimming” (or solar radiation management) schemes would be relatively cheap and effective, but deeply controversial. Mimicking the effects of a large volcanic eruption would quickly lower temperatures, but also hamper food production.
Proponents of geo-engineering are quick to point out that it can only complement, not replace, meaningful climate change mitigation. Yet geo-engineering is drawing growing interest and support from governments and such private donors as Bill Gates, who is helping to fund a Harvard University experiment that is injecting water, then calcium carbonate particles into the atmosphere to study whether the technology can safely simulate the cooling effects of a volcanic eruption. Scientists have planned more such experiments.
The growing fascination with geo-engineering alarms some senior climate change scientists. First, they question its effectiveness. Kevin Trenberth, a lead author for the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told The Guardian newspaper earlier this year that geo-engineering does not represent an answer. “Cutting incoming solar radiation affects the weather and hydrological cycle,” he said. “It promotes draught. It destabilizes things and could cause wars. The side effects are many and our models are just not good enough to predict the outcomes.” Second, it runs the risk of creating competition for precious resources. Money that flows into unproven mitigation schemes is money that drains from proven mitigation schemes such as solar power. Third, it creates the unreasonable expectation that humans can somehow escape an environmental catastrophe of their own making through the technological equal of a get-rich-quick scheme with unforeseeable consequences rather than going through the painful, but ultimately most effective approach of reducing emissions of GHGs. “Real climate justice requires dealing with root causes of climate change, not launching risky, unproven and unjust schemes,” Lisa Archer of Friends of Earth, told The New York Times.
5. Gene editing

Gene manipulators can cut, edit and paste genes much as a word processor can manipulate text. (Photo: Pixaba)

Gene manipulators can cut, edit and paste genes much as a word processor can manipulate text. (Photo: Pixaba)

The potential uses of advanced genome editors such as CRISPR appear endless. So do the dangers.
Briefly, CRISPR (short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat) can cut, edit and paste genes in the same way that a word processor manipulates text. While gene editors have been around for decades, the emergence of CRISPR signals an evolutionary leap. According to the science journal Nature: “Unlike other gene-editing methods, it is cheap, quick and easy to use, and it has swept through labs around the world as a result.”
Gone are the days when scientists would spend years to manipulate a single gene. With limited training, junior scientists can create edited genes within two days, according to The New York Times. CRISPR’s usability and affordability have democratized its use and already sparked far-ranging experiments, some of which may have already crossed various ethical lines. In March 2017, for example, scientists used CRISPR to develop a process that would quickly pass on mutations, thereby raising the possibility of introducing irreversible changes.
The medical promises of gene-editing are nothing short of utopian. Scientists speak of a future in which gene-editing will help create powerful new drugs; grow super-foods to feed the masses and treat various diseases including blindness, cancer and HIV/AIDS. Private companies are already lining up to offer specialized medical services based on gene-editing. While such services are not ready for the mass market, they speak to the breathtaking pace of development that has gripped the bio-medical industry.
Some say it’s moving too fast, a fear underscored by news in early August 2017 that U.S. scientists had successfully used the technique to repair a common, disease-causing mutation and then produced apparently healthy embryos. This new research marked a major milestone in the evolution of technique. While initial experiments on non-viable embryos by Chinese scientists reported in April 2015 revealed what Nature described as “serious obstacles” in the medical application of CRISPR, this recent U.S. research, also published in Nature, underscored the medical potential of application.
“It feels a bit like a ‘one small step for (hu)mans, one giant leap for (hu)mankind’ moment,” Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist who helped discover the gene-editing method, wrote in an email to The New York Times. This news comes with provisos. While CRISPR may help eradicate devastating diseases before babies are born, more research must be done. It has also intensified fears of “designer babies” as people with means may use the technique to have children with enhanced traits. Others worry that it may also fundamentally alter the course of human evolution, because changing the DNA of an early embryo changes cells that will eventually produce sperm and eggs. So if an embryo develops and a baby is born and grows to a reproductive age, that person’s children will inherit the genetic alteration. “In our view, genome editing in human embryos using current technology could have unpredictable effects on future generations,” researchers warned in Nature in March 2015.
Current regulations do not draw firm red lines against editing the genomes of human eggs, sperm and early embryos, citing scientific research. That is a wise choice because it preserves the medical potential of CRISPR, but it should not blind us to potential abuses.
6. Energy

Germany's new fusion generator has so far lived up to expectations. (Photo: / Max-Planck-Institute, Tino SchulzTrump)

Germany’s new fusion generator has so far lived up to expectations. (Photo: / Max-Planck-Institute, Tino SchulzTrump)

If humanity wants to deal with the effects of climate change, it needs nothing less than an “energy miracle.” So Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates told The Atlantic in November 2015. “That may make it seem too daunting,” he added, “but in science, miracles are happening all the time.” While this observation may strike some as too simplistic, its inherent premise and larger promise are more appropriate than we might like to think.
Consider the premise. Combatting the effects of climate change requires the ultimate repeal-and-replace bill for the carbon-based global economy that emerged in the late 18th Century with the Industrial Revolution. It starts with giving up fossil fuels, “perhaps the most daunting challenge as denizens of richer nations literally eat, wear, work, play and even sleep on products made from fossilized sunshine,” as Scientific American puts it.
The decision by the Trump administration to double down on carbon-based forms of energy for domestic political reasons, while undermining international efforts against climate change, speaks to this point.
Emerging powers among the high-population countries of the developing world have also asked pointed questions about why their citizens should forgo oil, coal and natural gas when westerners have feasted on such now-forbidden fruits for centuries.
While developed and developing countries are transitioning their economies towards non carbon-based forms of energy, these efforts require adequate substitutes.
But back to Gates’ sense of scientific promise as a rescue. Consider nuclear fusion, the process that powers the sun. When harnessed, it can produce clean, safe and nearly unlimited energy by fusing atoms. While it may seem fantastical to re-create the sun’s interior on Earth, scientists around the world, including the United States, Canada and Germany, have made considerable progress in achieving this very feat.
In 2015, Germany switched on a new promising type of fusion generator that has so far lived up to expectations, and in 2016, the Canadian company, General Fusion, announced plans to develop the world’s first commercial fusion-energy system. Existing alternative forms of energy, such as solar power, are becoming cheaper and scientists continue to work on a range of innovate measures to cut the use of energy or produce it more efficiently in cooling or heating buildings whose emissions account for almost 20 per cent of GHGs. They include such things as solar paint that produces clean energy, and systems that produce energy out of waste using anaerobic digestion.
7. Human augmentation

Employees at Sweden's Epicenter often stage initiation ceremonies to welcome new employees who accept implants such as the one shown here. (Photo: osabeth)

Employees at Sweden’s Epicenter often stage initiation ceremonies to welcome new employees who accept implants such as the one shown here. (Photo: osabeth)

The concept of humans augmented by technology has long evoked feelings of unease, if not dread. A survey of popular science fiction speaks to this point. This feeling likely soared in 2017. First in Sweden, then in the United States, companies have started to tag employees. These implants — no larger than a grain of rice — allow employees to perform any tasks that rely on radiofrequency identification (RFID) by waving their hands to open doors or buy snacks out of vending machines. So far, these programs are voluntary for employees, many of whom have eagerly embraced them as the way of the future.
Employees at Sweden’s Epicenter often stage initiation ceremonies to welcome new employees who accept the implants.
While their uses may not currently be nefarious, ethicists warn that companies may use them in more invasive manners, such as spying. “Once they are implanted, it’s very hard to predict or stop a future widening of their use,” Alessandro Acquisti, a professor of information technology and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College, told The New York Times.
Defenders deny these charges and the very people who accepted such implants find nothing unusual about them. Humans, they note, have a long history of supplementing and substituting body parts with technology to perform better or recover from illness. Examples include artificial bones for hip replacements or pacemakers. The coming generation of implants continues this tradition. It includes, among others, bionic exoskeletons that allow users to lift more weight, bionic eyes that improve vision and a range of advanced non-invasive neural implants that allow doctors to monitor brain behaviour while treating diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other neurological conditions.
Others even dream of a future where installing implants will be like swapping out new technologies. “You could talk about replacing limbs wholesale, like perhaps removing a biological arm or leg,” said Ryan O’Shea, a spokesman for Grindhouse Wetware, a company that offers human augmentation software and hardware under the slogan ‘What would you like to be today?’
Inevitably, dangers lurk. They include, among others, privacy breaches and hacking, as criminals may access personalized medical devices through their wireless technologies to extort money or do worse. Personalized medical devices are not just security nightmares. They also bear unforeseen medical risks and raise fundamental, potentially uncomfortable questions about the nature of being human, despite all of their promises to improve performance and alleviate suffering. Where does the future line between human and machine sit, if advocates of human augmentation, such as O’Shea, win the argument?
8. Manufacturing (3D printing)

The mainstream emergence of 3D printing upends the traditional model of manufacturing. (Photo:  © Moreno Soppelsa | Dreamstime)

The mainstream emergence of 3D printing upends the traditional model of manufacturing. (Photo: © Moreno Soppelsa | Dreamstime)

In a recent interview, former U.S. vice-president Al Gore described our existence as follows: “We are in the middle of a sustainability revolution around the world that has the magnitude of the Industrial Revolution and the speed of the digital revolution. It is unstoppable.”
One piece of evidence in support of this statement is the evolution of manufacturing. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, the basic design of the factory has not fundamentally changed. It remains, for the most part, an immovable building large enough to accommodate material that human hands and, increasingly, robots then assemble into goods according to a timed, standardized production schedule.
While modern-day supply chains have become more sophisticated and work environments safer, a factory in the early 21st Century does not operate that differently from a factory in the 19th Century.
The mainstream emergence of 3D printing, however, upends this model in many ways.
First, 3D printing personalizes production. Rather than choosing from a palette of standardized products designed for the masses, customers will be able to produce their very own individualized product in a place of their choosing, including their own homes.
Second, 3D printing is cheaper than standardized manufacturing. Whereas the standardized version relies on subtractive manufacturing — more material is used up during the production than what is produced and sold — 3D printing is a form of additive manufacturing. Comparable to baking a cake, it places layers of material on top of one another to shape the final object. This process of addition rather than subtraction lowers the costs. It has also lower fixed costs — no need to build large assembly plants — and far lower shipping costs because it relies on digital delivery. Customers who want to produce any good can simply download the necessary blueprint. Marketing budgets will shrink significantly in an age of personalized production.
Finally, 3D printing saves resources. It cuts down on waste during production, as well as packaging. In short, 3D printing frees manufacturing from current space and time limits. 3D printers are rapidly evolving, finding their way into military production, house construction and art. Companies are even using 3D printers to produce human organs.
9. Assistive robotics

ASIMO was Honda's first-generation carebot, introduced in 2014. Experts expect more as Japan is heavily investing in this technology. (Photo: Vanillase)

ASIMO was Honda’s first-generation carebot, introduced in 2014. Experts expect more as Japan is heavily investing in this technology. (Photo: Vanillase)

They can carry luggage, greet customers, and perform, shall we say, intimate bodily functions.
They are assistive robots, often human-like in appearance, and if current prognoses hold true, they will end up performing myriad tasks, ranging from the profane to the pleasurable with yet-to-be understood consequences and ethical dilemmas for humans. Such tasks range from flipping burgers and patrolling parking lots to helping care for the elderly. Indeed, even creative tasks may fall to robots.
Famously weary of immigration for economic and cultural reasons, Japan appears especially eager to embrace “these immigrants from the future” as The Economist’s correspondent Oliver Morton calls them.
Economic predictions, valued at up to $1.4 trillion by 2025, account for this welcoming attitude. Long a global leader in industrial robotics, Japan looks towards personalized robotics to maintain its competitiveness as it tries to defuse its ticking demographic time bomb.
For years, deaths have outpaced births in Japan, where the number of births dropped below one million for the first time last year. Japan’s National Institute of Population and Society Security Research predicts Japan’s current population of 127 million will drop nearly 40 million by 2065 — a development that ultimately means more retirees straining social services, fewer workers paying taxes and less consumption. As Scientific American reports, Japan’s automobile industry is already looking beyond autonomous vehicles towards developing personalized robots aiming to assist aging Japanese.
This reorientation has already seen Honda’s 2014 introduction of ASIMO, a first-generation carebot. Experts expect more, as Japan invests heavily in this technology.
Technology (including robotics) does, however, have a knack for over-promising and under-performing, something Japan acknowledges in its New Robot Strategy: “Despite rapid advancements of robots, some point out there is a huge limit in what robots can do as compared to what humans can do to recognize and cope with diverse situations and therefore we should not expect a dramatic leap in robotics in mid-term.” This said, Japan imagines nothing less than a complete re-engineering of its society towards what the report calls a “robot barrier-free society” in which humans and artificial humanoids would collaborate, if not co-exist.
“Once a robot barrier-free society comes true, there will be routine collaboration between robots and humans of all ages from children to seniors,” according to Japan’s New Robot Strategy report. “Robots will help release humans from cumbersome tasks and enrich interaction for a higher quality of life than ever.”
Some may consider such anodyne promises utopian, threatening, or purely cynical as assistive robots spread into fields such as elderly and palliative care, where human dignity is in high demand, but is also often scarce.
One touchy subject appears to be the emergence of robots that offer various sexual services. While some stress the therapeutic aspects of such artificial companions for lonely, older and disabled people, it is hard not to shudder in disgust about the more salacious aspects like sex doll brothels and dolls aimed at pedophiles. Some Europeans, in many ways only slightly less geriatric than the Japanese, are embracing these trends. Lumidoll, the company that opened Europe’s first sex doll brothel in Barcelona in February 2017, has eyed the United Kingdom for expansion. Its Barcelona shop might have also previewed the economic effects that many predict. Local members of the sex professionals’ association, Aprosex, complained that the robots were stealing customers who were eager to pay $140 for an hour of artificial sex. According to GQ, the company closed the shop and relocated to a new address only known to paying customers.

10. Space travel (laser-propelled space ships)

Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking predicts humans have about 100 years to find a new planet if they want to escape extinction. (Photo: Jim Campbell/Aero-News Network)

Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking predicts humans have about 100 years to find a new planet if they want to escape extinction. (Photo: Jim Campbell/Aero-News Network)

The clock is ticking, if you believe the doomsayers.
According to theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, humans have about 100 years to find another planet if they want to escape extinction in the face of epidemics, population explosions, climate change and overdue asteroid strikes.
“I strongly believe we should start seeking alternative planets for possible habitation,” Hawking said earlier this year. “We are running out of space on Earth and we need to break through technological limitations preventing us from living elsewhere in the universe.”
In November 2016, Hawking gave humanity 1,000 years of remaining time.
Leaving aside questions about the reasoning behind Hawking’s severe downward revision to 100 years, his appeal echoes a familiar ambition among earthlings: to live among the stars.
Humanity’s search for an exit strategy revolves around two questions. What would be our destination and how would we get there? Without knowing the answer to the first query, the answer to the second becomes more complicated.
While the number of discovered planets outside our solar system keeps rising — NASA listed 3,499 exo-planets in July — 2017, with thousands more potential candidates — scientists have yet to find any nearby planet capable of sustaining human life as we know it. Finding such a planet would be a necessary, but insufficient condition for human colonization.
Yes, scientists last year discovered a roughly Earth-sized planet orbiting our nearest neighbouring star, Proxima Centauri, the smallest member of a triple-star system also known as Alpha Centauri. Located at a distance from its sun that allows water to be liquid, Proxima Centauri might be habitable, with the emphasis on the conditional, confirmation pending.
While practically around the corner in interstellar terms, humanity’s fastest unmanned spaceships would take about 78,000 years to reach the planet, give or take a century. It would take the Space Shuttle about 165,000 years. Humanity, in other words, currently lacks the technology to make space travel beyond the solar system practical, never mind meet Hawking’s deadline. To his credit, Hawking has joined forces with Russian billionaire and physicist Yuri Milner in the Breakthrough Starshot project. It proposes to send a tiny, wafer-size spaceship to the planet with the help of a ground-based laser. The tiny probe attached to a light-sail would eventually reach about 20 per cent of the speed of light. While much work remains, elements of the necessary technology to realize this proposal already exist in the lab, albeit far from the necessary scale.
Other efforts have focused on developing propulsion systems that employ fission, fusion, nuclear weapons and anti-matter. Whether any of these proposed solutions will take off remains uncertain. Writing in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Philip Lubin of the University of California considers laser-driven systems the most realistic. “It is no longer fantasy,” he writes. “Recent dramatic and poorly appreciated technological advancements have made what we propose possible, though difficult.” It won’t be the giant leap in human space travel, he suggests, but it will be an important step. If Hawking is right, it better be.

Wolfgang Depner, PhD, has taught
political science and is a Victoria-based writer.

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Wolfgang Depner is a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia – Okanagan and the co-editor of Readings in Political Idealogies since the Rise of Modern Science, published by Oxford University Press.

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