Building a patently better future

Tech companies patent every idea they have, to prevent others from stealing a march on their clever innovations.

That doesn’t mean that every patented feature will end up as a real-life product, however. Here, we examine the most intriguing on-paper inventions, from smart contact lenses to flying cars, and spoke to a pair of futurists to assess when – if ever – they’ll become reality.

David Wood is the chair of London Futurists, a meet-up group for future-looking technologists. Wood also founded consultancy firm Delta Wisdom, which looks at the impact of technology on people, and co-founded Symbian.

Glen Hiemstra is the founder of Futurist.com, Hiemstra advises businesses and governments on future trends in economics, technology, transportation and more. He’s also an author and technical advisor on television shows.

Thought-controlled robots

Honeywell (patent no: US20130138248 A1)

If you have a sofa, you might want to hide behind it. Honeywell has patented a system allowing soldiers to control UAVs and battlefield robots with their minds.

The patent envisions a helmet fitted with bio-electric sensors and screens containing relevant commands – forwards, backwards, invade country and so on – that soldiers would think to control the robot. This information would then be fed through software into the robot’s mechanical brain, and hey presto, subjugated locals.

Current versions of this technology allow people to type messages with their brain, but Honeywell wants soldiers commanding platoons of robots simultaneously.

Thought controlled robots

Glen Hiemstra: “Successful experiments are already taking place with this technology and I’d expect it to be commercial by 2020. Initial applications will be limited to non-lethal and non-critical functions, but it won’t become genuinely useful until the ability to control something by thought is automatic enough that we can also carry out other activities. Right now, these interfaces require an operator’s complete attention.”

David Wood: “This sounds far-fetched, but many companies have been looking into similar technologies, with the field brain-computer interfaces attracting a lot of attention.”

Flying cars

Zee.Aero (patent no: US20130214086 A1)

The lack of flying cars is something the future is forced to apologise for every day. Hope arrives in the form of Zee.Aero, which has patented a small jet vehicle with eight rotors for lift and two rotors to propel it forwards. Zee.Aero reckons its “personal aircraft” would be “safe, quiet, easy to control, efficient and compact”, fitting in a normal car-parking space.

Some models would even have room for passengers and shopping, with all of them powered by electric batteries and a suite of sophisticated software. The patent’s author is Ilan Kroo, an aeronautics professor and NASA scientist, which is exactly the CV he should have.

Zee Aero

Glen Hiemstra: “I think the first sales will come in 2020, although they’ll be to a few wealthy people as a hobby, with societal impact limited by the fact that these are personal flying vehicles, not really cars to be driven down the street. Widespread adoption will be hampered by three issues: getting regulatory approval to use the skies, a process that can take years and varies by country; reaching a decent price point; and controlling noise levels so that neighbours will accept take-offs and landings next door.”

David Wood: “There’s little evidence Zee.Aero has done any serious work in this. The case for flying cars might make sense in some military instances, but I’m unconvinced about the merits for general public use. This technology is likely to be overtaken by a combination of autonomous vehicles – by Google or the University of Oxford – and vacuum-tube transportation systems.”

Smart contact lenses

Google (patent no: US20140088881 A1)

One day Google will be able to stuff itself into our brains with relative ease, but until then, our eyes will have to do. Google’s contact lenses feature embedded circuits, cameras and sensors, bulking out our frugal sensory palate with the ability to see heat or zoom in on things.

For blind people, the contact lenses could translate visual data into useful audio cues. Ultimately, these contact lenses could fulfil the lacklustre promise of augmented reality, with tiny screens constantly displaying information on the things we’re looking at.

Glen Hiemstra: “This will be commercial in some basic form by 2025. But the impact on society will be moderate as other forms of augmented reality will have been around for a decade, including Google Glass. Reading other people’s biometrics will be the spookiest part, and is addressed in the film Transcendence. The biggest hurdle will be integration with the eye industry, since there are possible regulatory issues.”

David Wood: “Early versions will deliver small amounts of functionality, but other features such as built-in cameras are likely to take longer. Also, like smartphones and smart glasses, it will take time for smart contacts to “cross the chasm” into mainstream acceptance, but the benefits they provide will prove decisive. In 20 years’ time, most people will be wearing smart contacts, or something similar, most of the time.”

Nanorobotics

Neal Solomon (patent no: WO2008063473 A2)

Imagine a world where clouds of tiny robots can create buildings, or swim in your bloodstream, fixing you before you even know you’re sick. In truth, lodging a patent covering nanorobotics is like naming
a planet you haven’t found or can’t reach, and exists in a dimension you can’t see.

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