By Dr. Juhi Ranjan, Assistant Professor, IIIT-Delhi
We love speculating about the future. It is unknown. It is exciting in its promises. It is scary when our comfort zone is challenged. It is comforting in its assistance. In this article, we will look at five of the most outrageous ideas proposed for the some of the most fundamental blocks of our current lives – food, energy, transport, pollution and the future of humans.
3-D Food Printers
We are running out of food to provide to the people on Earth. According to research conducted by World Wildlife Fund, by 2100, we will need to produce 2.5 times what all societies have produced in the last 8000 years – that is, we will need three planet Earths to support human activities. While there is a need to increase food production, there is also a need to reduce food wastage.
There are two types of wastages – food supply chain loss and the second is human consumption wastage. Both of these losses can be reduced greatly by a revolutionary idea proposed, which is 3-D food printing. 3-D printers are machines that can create 3-D objects from plastics, wood, and other materials. Recent innovations have made it possible for machines to print and cook food on a large scale. The food printers can be used to increase the nutritional value of the food, as well as make food available where access to fresh ingredients is limited. This technique can help prevent food supply chain wastage by processing the raw food into 3-D printer friendly pulp – meant to be shipped to far places. It can also potentially reduce human consumption loss by printing the right portion that a person may want to eat increasing of creating standard portion sizes currently served in food outlets. 3-D food printers primarily function as deposition printers – they deposit layers of raw material in layers until the object is fully created. Some other printers bind layers together with an edible cement-like material. Some other printers such as Foodini help in preparing food such as Pizza, stuffed pasta etc. which can be easily cooked to completion by people.
Flying Wind Turbines
While oil companies engage in deeper oil explorations and controversial oil extraction techniques such as fracking, the hunt for renewable energy has taken researchers to upper layers of Troposphere to create the next generation of wind turbines. A wind turbine works in exactly the opposite manner a fan works—instead of electricity powering motors to turn the fan’s blades, the wind turbine uses wind turning blades of a fan-like object, to make electricity. The wind turns two or three propeller-like blades around a rotor, which spins a generator connected to the rotor by a shaft, to create electricity. Wind Energy is a form of solar energy – it is a result of the Sun’s uneven heating of the atmosphere, the variations in Earth’s terrain and rotation of the Earth. Wind flow in the lower layers of the atmosphere are highly affected by bodies of water, vegetation, and differences in terrain. In the higher altitudes of the Troposphere, friction is greatly reduced and the wind speeds are much higher, resulting in meandering air currents we refer to as Jet Streams. It has been estimated that as wind speeds double, the potential supply of energy grows eight-fold. Wind energy startups are currently in a race to develop the technology to harness this idea. Altaeros Energies recently announced plans to hoist an airborne wind turbine to an unprecedented altitude of 1,000 feet above a remote site in Alaska. Their prototype looks like a miniature airship that has the standard three-blade, horizontal axis turbine in the center with four protruding fins for stability. The outer shell is filled with helium and made from a highly-durable fabric, which is attached to three high-tensile strength tethers that hold the turbine securely in place. An onboard sensor system enables the turbine to operate autonomously, even changing its position to harvest more wind energy or dock whenever it detects a severe thunderstorm. Sensors on the wind turbine can be used to re-orient it to harvest more wind energy or dock securely in inclement weather. A side-benefit of this system is that it is light enough to be deployed at any location in a day’s time.
After the invention of Maglev trains which could travel at the speed of 430 km/ph, we pretty much hit the ceiling on the speeds attainable in ground transportation. The focus then shifted on revolutionizing air transportation, and more recently in developing autonomous cars. Recently, a new concept in ground transportation has started gaining a lot of traction – Hyperloop. The simplest way to envision a Hyperloop system is to imagine tubes connecting cities, and people travelling in pods at a speed of 1200 km/ph through these tubes. Most of the air in the tubes, if not all, will be removed thereby creating near vacuum-like condition. So what is the promise of Hyperloop that is so exciting, what are the problems that it is trying to solve? Hyperloop is basically aimed at replaced air travel for relatively short distances. So domestic flights, air travel between places that are less than 1500 km apart can be replaced with Hyperloop. Beyond that, researchers speculate that supersonic air travel would be more efficient. The advantages of Hyperloop are many. Firstly, Hyperloop would operate on electricity, as opposed to fossil fuels used in air travel. As clean energy becomes more available in the future, it can be used to operate Hyperloop. Secondly, it consumes far less energy than a conventional aircraft. Thirdly, the pods in the Hyperloop can be used in an on-demand manner as they accommodate far fewer people than an airplane. The pods are designed to float above the tube’s surface on a set of 28 air-bearing skis. To envision this, imagine how a puck moves on an air hockey table. Some critics of Hyperloop speculate that traveling in the tube might be an uncomfortable experience with nausea-inducing acceleration, plus lateral G-forces in the bends.
Ocean robots that ‘smell’ pollution
As of 2014, UN has confirmed that approx. 270,000 tons of plastic waste is currently in the ocean. Anyone who has heard about the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ knows that its current size is estimated by some to be ranging from the size of Texas to the size of Russia. Scientists have proposed creating artificial aquatic creatures equipped with new types of sensors that can be used to pinpoint garbage patches in water bodies. One such embodiment of the idea is in form of a robotic eel proposed by EPFL researchers. The robot has eel-like movement and it can move through water without stirring up mud or disturbing aquatic life. The sensors onboard keep sampling the water and tagging the location. Currently, the researchers have tested the eel by dissolving salts in one portion of the lake, which was correct detected by the eel as a change in conductivity of the water region. The ultimate aim of this project is to detect the presence of heavy metals such as Mercury. Some of the sensors are standard conductivity and temperature sensors, while others contain miniaturized biological sensors that house bacteria, small crustaceans etc.
Humans may not necessarily evolve to stay completely organic being. Many people believe that the future people will be cyborgs – part human and part machines. We have been integrating technology into our lives, weaving it closely with our activities of daily living. At some point, technology started acting as our extension as the very fabric with which we perceive and interact with the world. A good example of this is the smartphone. Smartphone separation anxiety is now a medically recognised disorder. We have been able to use technology to fulfill the deficiencies of our physical body – replace a missing limb (robotic prosthetics), compensate for a poorly functioning sensory organ (eyeglasses, hearing aid), etc. We get drawn closer and closer to integrating with technology because it makes life comfortable and enjoyable. Our glasses can now record what we can see and store these memories forever. Imagine this technology being integrated into our eyes. We wear Bluetooth headsets which allow us to make phone calls hands-free. Imagine this technology being integrated with our ears. This vision , however, is not without its risks. The integration of machines can allow for some very real risks to the cognitive awareness and mortality of a person.