2017's Most Mind-Boggling Futuristic Tech
By Eric Griffith, PCMag, 28 December 2017.
By Eric Griffith, PCMag, 28 December 2017.
Since 1983, we have looked back at what the preceding 12 months brought about in the area of technical excellence. This was a weird year, but it didn't lack for innovations in computing and beyond.
Of course, it takes more than some extra RAM in a PC to get the editors of PCMag (and sister sites like ExtremeTech) excited. The materials used to make these products - and the outright genius applied when making them - makes for an eclectic list of breakthroughs that would have seemed like speculative fiction 34 years ago.
Keep in mind, the technologies below aren't all available yet; some may never make it to market. Last year we picked quite a few that have yet to debut, such as nanotech patch monitors, and some that have already been killed off, like Intel's Project Alloy (virtual reality) and Google's Tango (augmented reality). But that doesn't mean they weren't/aren't breakthrough tech that will continue to inform our unseen future.
Below is a look at what the staff picked as tech most likely to have a major impact in the years and decades ahead. Some may be so inside-baseball you'll never even know if you're using it, but chances are it will touch your life in some way, as long as you're in touch with technology.
1. FACE DETECTION: TrueDepth Camera and Face ID
The iPhone X ditches the home button and comes with a hefty price tag, but its most notable feature is the facial recognition used to unlock the phone. Apple calls it Face ID and for the most part, it works very well.
Face ID uses a TrueDepth camera on the front of the phone, found in that notorious notch at the top. It's more than a camera - it's a projector that displays 30,000 infrared dots on your face, so the front camera can unlock the iPhone X even in the dark.
We've seen similar things tried before, like Intel's RealSense, but Apple is kicking off what promises to be facial recognition mania. It's already being used (sans the cool infrared dots) in airports, and Qualcomm has a similar camera in development that's likely to hit Android phones in 2018. Eventually, it'll migrate to the rear cameras and be used for much more than recognizing faces. We could be doing full 3D scans on handsets before we know it.
2. TECH FOR MOM: Willow Wearable Breast Pump
Breastfeeding is not easy, especially needing to be available to the baby whenever the kid is hungry. That's why breast pumps exist, so parents can build up a supply for feeding as needed. While pumps have come a long, long way, they're still noisy machines that attach to breasts and stick out while filling collection bottles - not exactly subtle.
The Willow breast pumps revealed at CES 2017 are trying to change that. They're battery-powered inserts that go inside a shirt or bra and collect precious breast milk in proprietary, leak-proof bags. There is, of course, an app that helps you run the Willow pump(s), even tracking the amount pumped. It's not cheap (pushing US$500), and probably not covered by your insurance (yet), and is in fact still very much in beta. But new moms may want to try it now and help perfect it for the future, so those air-horn-shaped pumps become a thing of the past.
3. CLIMATE CHANGER: Climeworks' CarbFix2 Direct Air Capture Plant
Just as it feels like Earth may be on its final legs thanks to mankind's stupidity, one faction of humanity renews your faith a bit. Climeworks AG opened a pilot plant in Zurich for industrial-scale capture of CO2 - the chemical culprit of climate change - right out of the air.
The planet is only pulling 900 tons per year - the equivalent of 200 cars' emissions, which is not a lot. We'd need 250,000 more Climeworks plants to even get 1 percent of the global emissions. But maybe it'll happen since Climeworks is taking CO2 and selling it to businesses, like food and beverage makers. Money talks, after all. For now, it's a step in the right direction.
4. SPACE TRAVEL: SpaceX Reusable Rockets
Reusing the same craft to go to the stars has long been the sci-fi dream, and certainly came true with the space shuttle program. But the one thing that wasn't reusable were the rockets that propelled that craft into the air. Until now. SpaceX - one of the many companies headed by Elon Musk - has managed it, after already proving it could land a rocket.
In December, SpaceX reused the Dragon capsule and the Falcon 9 rocket, which were both used previously in separate flights. It saved millions of dollars, which SpaceX probably needs since it lost a lot of rockets in the past. But even if it didn't, recycling such super-expensive engines and equipment is a must.
Reusing Falcon 9 is just the start. Next year, SpaceX will try a new rocket called Falcon Heavy. Also reusable, this is a 2-stager with 27 first stage liquid-oxygen engines, and a single second stage - that's like three Falcon 9s strapped together. With 5.1 million pounds of thrust at lift-off, it's meant to be enough to take 37,000 pounds to Mars, and almost four times that into low-Earth orbit.
5. TERRESTRIAL TRAVEL: The Boring Company's Skate Tunnels
Elon Musk again? His companies certainly embrace the futuristic, even if that means being...Boring. We will never get sick of using the pun in the name of the Boring Company, a firm Musk established to build underground tunnels in a bid to improve transportation, starting (probably) with Los Angeles.
These tunnels would be smaller than usual (14 feet in diameter instead of the usual 28 feet), so tunnel boring machines (TBMs) could cut through things faster and cheaper. They'd also be entirely electric rather than using diesel.
Cars access the tunnels via elevators, which lower vehicles onto a "sled" that skates along metal tracks at speed up to 125mph. Ideally, this would rocket you from LAX to Culver City (the first proposed route) in five minutes instead of 45. The Boring Company is also in the running to build something similar from O'Hare Airport to downtown Chicago.
The concept is equal parts magnificent and madness. A tunnel is already being bored at the SpaceX HQ in Hawthorne, not far from LAX, because that doesn't require approval from the city. Many think it's just a trial run for Musk's real goal: colonizing under the surface of Mars. Maybe best of all: the Boring Company is financing some of this by selling hats.
6. VIRTUAL ASSISTANTS: Voice Recognition
Having a voice assistant - a conversational AI - you can chat with is about as commonplace as seeing a screen today. In fact, we singled out Siri for kudos way back in 2011, after Apple bought it and incorporated the disembodied voice into iOS 5. But one thing Siri couldn't do at the time was tell different voices apart.
That's now changing. Siri can tell your voice apart enough to ignore other people saying "Hey, Siri." Google's Assistant can differentiate up to six voices using Voice Match, as can Amazon's Alexa.
What does that mean exactly? A unique response to the user. Asking "Alexa, play my favorite music," or "Hey Google, what meetings are on my calendar?" should produce different results depending on who's asking.
To make recognition work, users have to build a voice profile. On Alexa, you read aloud 10 phrases that display in the Alexa app, for example - it's that simple. The personalization options have hardly begun, but expect to see the voice assistant devices differentiating you and your housemates even more in the future. Apple's already got a patent, for example, to use Siri as a voice biometric, much like you'd use a fingerprint or your face today.
7. COMPUTING: IBM 50-qubit Quantum Computer
Not long after IBM announced it would make its 5 quantum bits (qubits) universal quantum computer available to developers - with a simulator that could model 20 qubits - Big Blue upped the ante in November to become the first company with a quantum computer that handles 50 qubits.
Both systems can hold a quantum state for about 90 microseconds. That doesn't sound like a lot, but it's a veritable eternity in quantum computing. Even Google says it could put quantum computers ahead of today's supercomputers. IBM, meanwhile, is already thinking about some mathematics that would help it simulate more than 50.
8. SIGHT FOR THE BLIND: eSight 3
There are millions of legally blind or low-vision (20/200 or less vision in their better eye) individuals who cannot navigate the world, let alone a PC or phone, as easily as the sighted. The eSight 3 may be a solution for many, if they can afford the US$10,000 price tag.
ESight's third-generation device sits like a visor on the user's forehead, over the eyes, and takes in video of the surroundings. It shows that same video back to the wearer using algorithms that increase the contrast and magnification, enough so eSight says the (legally) blind can actually see. It even supports Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and HDMI for content streaming from digital devices.
9. GAMING: Nintendo Switch
Think of the Nintendo Switch as the console game system you can truly take anywhere. With sales already topping 10 million units, the Switch is certainly a hit with gamers, and there's a reason for that: it's a perfect hybrid of mobile gaming and traditional consoles - sometimes seamlessly going between the two in the same game. The Joy-Con wireless controllers alone are a great mix of what made it fun to use the controls on the old Nintendo Wii. They work perfectly in the Switch's tablet mode with its 6-inch, 720p capacitive touch screen. It's a PCMag Editors' Choice, and one of our Best Products of 2017 because it's disrupting gaming in a way the competition hasn't in a long time.
10. SCREENS: Self-Healing Glass
University of Tokyo grad student Yu Yanagisawa was trying to make a glue. But the glass-like polymer he created - called "polyether-thioureas" - was instead found to have self-healing properties when cut or cracked. Just holding them together for around 30 seconds would let the cracks heal, all from the heat of his hand.
According to The Guardian, the Japanese researchers are not alone, as others at the University of California formulated a polymer that will stretch and heal breaks. So maybe in 10 years your friend’s smashed-up smartphone screen could be repaired by the heat in the room.
11. BUSINESS: Oracle Autonomous Database 18c
Oracle is a bit behind in the whole "owning the cloud" thing, but stepped up its game by providing a database that takes care of itself. Without human intervention, Database 18c should be self-repairing when corruption problems occur (providing a supposed 99.995 percent up-time, meaning only a half hour of downtime per year), potentially the biggest change to databases since the cloud.
12. PHOTOGRAPHY: Sony A9 Camera Sensor
There's no doubt the Sony A9 mirrorless camera is a magnificent photography tool. And most of that boils down to the full-frame 24.2-megapixel stacked CMOS sensor design it has inside. PCMag's camera analyst, Jim Fisher, says it lets the camera do things that others just can't: The burst mode, the full view of action while shooting, and the silent operation - they're all unique to the A9 because of the sensor.
It's not the biggest sensor out there (Sony also has one that's 42MP), but this one has the speed and performance photographers will really crave, letting them push images to an ISO of 204,800. Nothing else has a sensor that shoots this quickly. But if more adopt it, it bodes well for the future of photography.
13. MACHINE LEARNING: Google AlphaZero
In the years since Google (now Alphabet) acquired DeepMind Technologies Unlimited, the neural network company has created AI that plays the hardest games with the same skill as a human.
AlphaGo beat a few human Go champions, and now the follow-up, AlphaGo Zero (aka AlphaZero) has won at Go, chess, and Japanese chess (shogi) - without any programming. It used reinforcement learning by playing the game by itself, and figured out how to improve. Most notably: AlphaZero learned everything it needed to beat its opponent in only a few hours.
One of those digital opponents it beat: AlphaGo. (It also beat 18-time Go champion of the world Lee Sedol over the course of 100 matches). Imagine that learning process put to work on more than just pawns and you can see the implications.
14. WIRELESS: 5G NR
It's officially here! 5G NR (for New Radio) has its first official specification from the 3GPP, the consortium that binds all the organizations that want a hand in the (hopefully fully interoperable) wireless future. This is the first step to the launch of 5G networks.
5G isn't necessarily aimed at mobile phone users - it will play a big part in the continued explosion of the Internet of Things (IoT), for example, and won't be defined by one single technology or one single stretch of spectrum. That's what makes it so important for the coming decade. Still, that doesn't mean it won't hit some phones early on for testing; a few are already out in the wild.
15. ENERGY: Hot Solar Cells
Image: MIT News
You know what's super inefficient? Solar collection. Traditional, single-layer photovoltaic panels for taking in the energy of the sun have been traditionally limited by what's called the Shockley-Queisser Limit - which is about 32 percent. But researchers at MIT think that converting the solar to heat before it turns to electricity, using thermophotovoltaics, will crack through that limit. It would require adding extra layers to a cell that could handle it, but the theoretical limit could potentially double.