Science, technology & design

A post-human future

Here's a thought to wake you up in the morning. The first human to live to 150 has already been born. Actually it's not really that amazing. We have already witnessed a life-span to 120 and that was before we started to invent new ways of staying well for longer. Indeed, 180 might not be far off. Sixty will be the new 30 as disease becomes a thing of the past (for some) and body parts will be routinely replaced with either new biological spares or mechanical alternatives. Add to this genetic enhancements for unborn children and there will soon be two human species walking around the planet - one enhanced and one natural. We will have bionic hearts, bionic eyes, enhanced memories and enhanced intelligence. Indeed, much of this is already happening. Athletes take steroids to improve their strength and routinely have eye surgery to improve their vision. Modafinil is routinely taken by students to improve short-term intelligence and Viagra is a recreational drug. As for cosmetic surgery, originally developed to treat disfigurement, this is more or less just a branch of the cosmetics industry. Even IVF, an 'enhancement' which in 1969 most Americans thought 'violated God's will' is now accepted by the majority of Americans. Moreover, anything man-made in a sense violates the natural order. Clothes, plumbing and agriculture are all enhancements designed to make our life easier - but nobody would seriously argue that they make us less human.
Ref: New Scientist (UK), 13 May 2006, 'The Incredibles', G. Lawton.
Search words: singularity, medicine, enhancement, ageing

My robot

Was it Bruce Sterling who once said that in the future all products would be cuddly?He may yet be right. Sony has recently announced that it is ending production of its plastic and metal robotic Aibo dog while toy-maker Hasbro has announced that it is expanding its range of 'FurReal' robotic animals. In other words, robotics as robots aren't selling whereas robotically-enhanced toys are (especially furry ones). The Hasbo line-up includes a baby chimpanzee and future additions include a miniature pony that is afraid of the dark. Even some of the more 'traditional' robotic toys like Robosapien conceal their robotic origins. The lesson here is that, apart from a few gadget freaks, most people want robots to do something useful for them like clean the floor (eg, the Roomba robot) or provide an interactive experience that is cuddly and not menacing nor mechanical. On the subject of scary robots, Playmates Toys (creator of the Amazing Amanda doll) is planning to launch a new doll called Amazing Allysen. Apparently this is Amanda's 'tweenage' sister and comes complete with a 'richer vocabulary'. If this includes the vocabulary of the average 12-year-old, I can't wait.
Ref: The New York Times (US), 16 March 2006, ' The shape of robots to come', M. Marriott.
Search words: robots, toys, cuddly, fur

Insect vision for humans

Researchers at the University of California (Berkley) have developed an artificial insect eye that could one day be used in ultra-thin digital cameras (think credit-card thickness). The technology could also one day be used for medical-imaging purposes or even for artificial human retinas. The 'eye' - which is the size of a pinhead - consists of 8,700 humps, each acting like a tiny lens. The design is similar to the compound eyes found in insects like the dragonfly, which has over 30,000 such structures in each of its eyes.
Ref: BBC (UK), 27 April 2006, 'Insect eye inspires future vision'.
Search words: vision, eyes, lenses, insects, cameras

Hidden in plain sight

British and American scientists are working on a new technology that will allow things to disappear. The idea is to create new 'meta-materials' which can be programmed to react to light or electromagnetic radiation in controllable ways. In other words, light could be made to flow around or over certain objects. For example, nuclear power stations might vanish or military tanks might be made to disappear from enemy sight as well as radars. This obviously sounds like science fiction but so were satellites when Arthur C. Clarke first came up with the idea.
Ref: Sydney Morning Herald (Aus), 27-28 May 2006, 'Now you see it ... invisibility cloak in design', D. Smith.
Search words: invisibility, cloaks, shields, light