Building a patently better future

We can’t power anything this small, which doesn’t matter because we can’t build nanorobots anyway and, even if we could, we haven’t yet solved the artificial-intelligence problems necessary to make them work together. More importantly, how do we avoid having to wash billions of dollars’ worth of technology out of our hair when we accidentally stroll through a cloud of them?

Glen Hiemstra: “To create these robots in the numbers required implies self-replicating machines and we haven’t done that at any significant scale. The other really big issue is creating an energy package that small that lasts more than a few minutes. Once they’ve been created, the impact will be huge. The planet will become more self-aware, and the threat of machines taking over could be seen as real. Commercial by 2050.”

Pandemic prevention scanners

Boeing (patent no: US20130130227 A1)

If the recent Ebola outbreak has taught us anything, it’s that we should all tape our doors and windows shut, and never go anywhere ever again. Boeing disagrees. It has patented a technology for monitoring common areas in airports, with a raft of sensors tracking sneezing, vomiting, shakes, sweats and even high body temperatures. Software would then match all this to a database of conditions, alerting the pandemic police to the imminent zombie apocalypse.

The patent even suggests implanting biometric sensors into boarding passes, allowing the system to keep an even closer eye on your health.

pandemic prevention

Glen Hiemstra: “I first heard this proposed around 2000, but not much progress has been made so far, so allow another ten years at least – I’d say 2025. Societal impact will be significant, since it will not only decrease the chances of a pandemic, but it could also lead towards more preventive medicine, allowing for a healthier population and cheaper healthcare. The difficulty will be building the sensitive, non-contact sensors required, coupled with privacy issues.”

Vactrains

Robert Goddard (patent no: US2511979 A)

Pneumatic tubes have been around for decades, with offices using them to send messages and parcels between floors and buildings. Vacuum trains operate on the same principle, except we’ll be shooting people through them at speeds of up to 4,000 miles per hour (6,437kph).

Researchers at the National Key Laboratory of Traction Power at Southwest Jiaotong University claim they’re working on a prototype “vactrain” capable of travelling at 370mph (595kph), which will be ferrying people within the decade. Unfortunately, the magic of tomorrow is hampered by the physics of today: how do you safely slow down an object from 4,000mph? When a car crashes at 100mph it smears itself across a good proportion of the road. What happens if a vactrain does that? Destination: splat!

Vac Train

Glen Hiemstra: “We need to see full-scale prototypes to know how real this will be, especially in terms of cost versus other forms of intercity travel. Societal impact could be huge if it proves cost-competitive, because the technology promises to speed up travel times while cutting energy and environment impacts. Several start-ups are trying to get this idea going, although their challenge will be to stay alive long enough to take the concept to commercial rollout, especially in light of the long lead time for permitting and building. If all goes well, it could be commercial by 2035.”

David Wood: “Elon Musk is looking hard at this idea in his Hyperloop project, so we ought to take it seriously. Even so, it’s a project more likely to take 20 years than, say, five.”

Weather-altering satellites

Franklin Chen (patent no: US5984239 A)

This is one of those “on-the-fence” technologies, where one side is a golden land of food, water, peace and plenty, and the other side is… well, Tesco at closing time.

Chen’s patent envisions a network of satellites capable of altering the weather at our command, bringing rain to the African plains, or bottling up the clouds when floods threaten. Science can’t explain any of this because Chen’s clearly never heard of it, but that isn’t stopping conspiracy theorists from suggesting that countries will soon be battering their enemies with hurricanes.

Glen Hiemstra: “We’ll only see this kind of technology if climate change creates enough urgency that it’s seen as vital to survival. If that doesn’t occur, I doubt very much that it could overcome environmental objections. We could see something by 2050.”

David Wood: “This is an enormously important topic. It fits into the broader category of geo-engineering. In its wider form, it’s set to be discussed often, because of its potential to address climate-change issues.”

Mechanical telepathy

Department of Defense (US6470214 B1)

There was always going to be a moment when the US government became a dastardly parody of itself. That moment occurred on 13 December 1996, when the Department of Defense (DoD) patented a technique allowing it to theoretically broadcast messages directly into our brains.

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