Saturday, January 8, 2011

8 sci-fi inspired advances that became real in 2010

Arthur C. Clark said that 2010 would be the year we made contact. While we didn't find the Monolith, and Zephram Cochrane didn't shake hands with a Vulcan, 2010 had some headlines that were truly the stuff of science fiction.

Are we already living in the future? Take a moment and decide for yourself with these eight advancements that are helping make science fiction into science reality.

Click on any image to see it enlarged.


1. Cloaking

There were two big advancements for cloaking technology introduced in 2010. The first deals with a"metamaterial" that could be used to channel the flow of light. This alone was the very stuff of science fiction that puts pictures of a decloaking Romulan Warbird (as seen above) in our heads.

The second is a prototype that promised to "remove something from spacetime." At first, visions of the TARDIS and traveling through time come to mind. However, the technology is used to speed up light and slow it down on opposite sides, thereby creating a "gap." The effect of such a light gap cloak would give the appearance of instantaneously moving from one place to another.

The technology resembles something used in an episode of the Six Million Dollar Man: For those who don't remember, in the episode, the alien creators of the Sasquatch used these small handheld devices to give the appearance of jumping from one place to another. It turned out that Steve's bionic eye was able to penetrate the light wavelength (of course) allowing him to see that they were just walking.


2. Teleportation

Wow! More Star Trek technology than you can shake a tricoder at. While we haven't beamed a landing party down from orbit yet, scientists impressed us all this year by transporting materials a whopping ten miles.

This is a huge leap from a few years ago when scientists were able to move some particles a meager few feet. Just think, one day we'll be telling our grandkids horror stories about how we had towalk or drive places.


3. Laser Weapons

Lots of science fiction is populated by sweet laser cannons shooting down spaceships or blowing up whole planets. While this is certainly not the Wave Motion Gun from Star Blazers,the U.S. Navy's Laser Weapon System (or LaWS, pictured above) has realized the promise of laser technology in the modern day, by being able to shoot down drones and disrupt enemy electronics.

Of course, there's also Boeing's laser-equipped 747. While it wasn't introduced in 2010, it did score some of its biggest successes then — and run into its biggest roadblocks.


4. Household Robots

While robots have been around for quite a while, this year saw several mass production household robots roll off the line. The PR2 from Willow Garage (pictured) and the REEM-H2 from PAL Robotics in Spain are are probably a little more closely related to the butler robot from Caprica than C-3PO or Marvin.

The idea that these robots are now being mass produced means they'll probably be in our houses faster than VCRs or flat panel TVs — well, if they continue to develop those beer-delivering skills. That's crucial.


5.Tractor Beams

While it may be primitive, this was a first for the headlines.

According to Popular Science:

"It works by shining a hollow laser beam around small glass particles, as Inside Science explains. The air around the particle heats up, but the hollow center of the beam stays cool. The heated air molecules keep the object balanced in the dark center. But a small amount of light sneaks into the hollow, warming the air on one side of the object and nudging it along the length of the laser beam. Researchers can change the speed and direction of the glass object by changing the lasers' brightness."

Because it needs air to work, we won't be using it to move spaceships any time soon, but Alexander Graham Bell didn't have "call waiting" or "text messaging."


6. "Transparent Aluminum"

This one is obviously about as close to the material Scotty described to Dr. Nichols in Star Trek IV as it's possible to be. A lab in Germany, subjected extremely fine-grained aluminum to a scorching 1,200 degrees Centigrade. They made a material that is extremely light, yet tougher than hardened steel and, of course, it's transparent!


7. Learning Computers

Professor Henry Markram, medical doctor and computer engineer (a rare combination), announced that his team would create the world's first artificial conscious and intelligent mind by 2018.

News articles have compared him to a modern day Frankenstein. (Hey, unless you're sewing together dead bodies and trying to reanimate Abby Normal's brain, you don't really qualify as Dr. Frankenstein.) However, science fiction has warned us again and again about the dangers of trying to build a truly conscious, thinking machine.

The techie in me thinks the idea is a cool one, but then again there's all those lessons taught to us by Forbin, Skynet, M-5 and, of course, the Cylons. Oh, who cares? Thinking robots are damn cool. At least until they take over the world.


8. Alien Life (on Earth)

This may not be as exciting as mind melding with a Horta, but it may be almost as significant. The Horta (pictured above with Spock) is supposedly based on silicon, and according to McCoy it was the first time they encountered life based on anything other than carbon.

NASA's discovery not only opens a whole host of new possibilities regarding what we define as life, it also opens the possibility of life on planets that were previously thought to be "uninhabitable."

Looking at the strong science fiction influences here, it's only logical to ask, "Would these have even been created had there not been science fiction stories to inspire them? A NASA scientist once told Gene Rodenberry that he was upset when the original Star Trek was cancelled because Star Trek was such a great source of ideas for them...more than he would ever have known.

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