Last week we looked at great science fiction writers, and the list provoked something of a storm. We knew it would and some of the criticisms were valid, although a few were off the wall.
However, in keeping with the theme this week we're going to look at technologies we'd like to see for the future, be they predicted by science fiction writers or otherwise.
Future speculation is at the heart of science fiction writing and it's also notoriously difficult. Arthur C Clarke was famously bad at it, predicting a manned Mars landing in 1994, and Hollywood is even worse, as Escape from New York and Death Race 2000 show.
The IT industry has its share of howlers too, from the view that telephones were so important that every city should have one, to Bill Gates's notorious predictions on memory.
Nevertheless, it's important to dream of better things if it inspires the real side of life. Many inventors talk about being inspired by stories and ideas of the future and this is particularly true in the IT world.
A good number of business plans that got first-round venture capital funding in the late 1990s were masterpieces of this. Most fell by the wayside, but some persist.
So here's our long-term look at what we need for the future. As for the feasibility of some of the things we suggest only time will tell but, as ever, we welcome your comments.
Honourable Mention: 100 per cent contraception
Shaun Nichols: This isn't an item I was big on, as it doesn't seem to have much of a connection to the IT industry, but Iain made a pretty compelling argument.
The IT industry is playing a key role in biomedical research more than ever, and if there's a solution out there, it may well come from the tech sector.
Better methods of contraception have been a goal of science for centuries. The advent of the birth control pill brought about major shifts in culture around the world and since then we have been looking for a fool-proof way to prevent pregnancy.
There are currently options that are near-perfect, but all have their drawbacks. Hormone treatments can have unpleasant and dangerous side-effects and often need to be taken on very strict schedules to be effective. Surgical procedures are quite effective, but can be extremely difficult and painful to reverse. Condoms and IUDs are prone to failures both structural and human.
Some advocate abstinence as a fool-proof method, but that's about as likely as ending organised crime by sitting all the mob bosses down and giving a stern lecture on civic values.
If science can develop a convenient and 100 per cent effective method for contraception, it could solve any number of medical and culture issues we are currently saddled with, particularly if it can also stem the spread of disease.
Iain Thomson: I confess I had an ulterior motive, Shaun. We found out this week that IT has a direct input into contraception.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given $100,000 to researchers at the University of North Carolina who are studying the use of ultrasound to make men infertile.
The team found that an intense burst of ultrasound to the testicles sterilises them for around six months, providing a low cost, non-hormonal contraceptive. As was remarked on The News Quiz, we hope that Gates doesn't rush this one to market like so much of Microsoft's output, otherwise version one of the treatment will be a bloke with a mallet.
However, on a more serious note, global population has to be curbed. We're now approaching seven billion people on the planet and that isn't sustainable in the long run.
If population could be controlled the stresses on the planet could be significantly lifted and the lives of many people made better. There are dangers, to be sure, as China's current shortage of women shows, but population control is a necessity for the long-term health of the planet.
Honourable Mention: Wetware
Iain Thomson: Wetware, or internal computers, are beloved by many of the cyberpunk school of science fiction but they've been fact for a long time. Pacemakers have been in use since the early 1960s, and human/machine interfaces are constantly being worked on.
We're already seeing the first crude attempts with devices that control a computer screen using brain waves, but the real breakthrough will come if a way can be found to implant computer hardware and software in a way that it can be controlled and accessed by the mind.
The advantages of having an internal hard drive enabling encyclopaedic knowledge and the fast learning of skills is still in the realms of science fiction, but there are a lot of people working on making this fact.
The road to wetware will be hard and we're going to see some very grisly mistakes along the way I suspect. There is some evidence that implanting electrical devices can increase cancer rates, and the possibilities of a malware outbreak are frightening.
Imagine having a pop-up window flashing penis extension adverts (I confidently predict men will always want more, even in the far future) onto your eyeball every five minutes. There is also a danger of becoming too dependent on augmented devices, since if they fail it could imperil the user.
But the advantages of such a system would be immense. Wetware would allow real-time health monitoring, enhanced reactions or abilities and the ultimate always-on system. Humanity would initially baulk at widescale adoption but I suspect the benefits would outweigh any squeamishness.
Shaun Nichols: There's also the fear that you load too much data into your brain, causing irreversible damage and turning yourself into Keanu Reeves.
Jokes aside, there's immense promise in the field of wetware. Implanted computer systems could be vital in tasks such as eliminating cancer cells or regulating the levels of insulin in diabetics. Perhaps even brain implants could treat mental illnesses triggered by hormone deficiencies.
Of course there are worries that the technology will be used to horrible ends, but that sort of concern has accompanied just about every advent from radiation treatments and X-rays to organ transplants.
If we're not all currently ending our vacations floating in bathtubs full of ice with only one kidney, I highly doubt we will all suffer an epidemic of brain-born computer viruses.
10. DNA computing
Iain Thomson: In chip design, as in so much of life, size counts. We've seen huge advances in bringing down transistor sizes and some promising work on the next generation of logic gates, but at the end of the day the ultimate goal is replacing silicon with DNA computing.
DNA computing was first brought to public attention in 1994, when California scientist Leonard Adleman published an article in Science about using a DNA computer to solve the directed Hamilton Path problem, also known as the 'travelling salesman' problem.
A few years later scientists developed logic gates out of DNA and there are now research teams around the world working on the next generation of living computers.
DNA has some huge advantages in computing terms. It's incredibly dense material for storage purposes, is present wherever there is life and should be relatively non-polluting. It would also allow parallel processing in a way that would allow new applications that are currently barred for lack of compute power.
The first generation of DNA computers is coming and the first systems are going to be primitive. But eventually the technology will spread, barring some major hurdle not yet considered.
Shaun Nichols: One of the interesting things about modern computing is that it is all based on a Boolean system that requires its components to be in one of two positions. We can build computers from vacuum tubes, transistors and even phase-change gasses.
The advent of new computing methods such as phase-change memory, optical computing and DNA computers is highly interesting for any number of reasons, but I wonder about the possible unseen effects such systems could have with prolonged use.
DNA, for example, operates with the primary goal of replicating itself and spreading its genetic material. It is also prone to making imperfect copies of itself, causing mutations.
If both of these situations were to occur within a 'living' computer, all sorts of interesting science fiction plots could play out. It will be fascinating to see how DNA could function when applied to computing tasks.
9. More efficient batteries
: Anyone who has used a notebook or mobile phone for more than a year or two knows the short-comings of traditional lithium-ion battery cells.
New battery packs can offer several hours of rechargeable battery life. Over time, however, that lifespan can start to drop, significantly reducing the amount of time yielded by a full charge. If you don't regularly drain the battery entirely, it can get even worse.
Developing a battery pack that will not lose capacity over multiple charges will significantly improve the user experience, and help to save millions of batteries from contaminating landfills and harming the environment.
This one might not be so far off, as major advances
in battery technology have been made in recent years to extend the life-cycle of lithium-ion packs.Iain Thomson
: Battery technology is going to be crucial in any future, but the current state of play looks depressingly low on news. We're still only seeing forecasts of incremental improvements in battery technology for the foreseeable future, when what we need is a revolution.
The amount of electricity that can be reliably stored and accessed is going to be key to everything from IT to the car you drive to work in the morning. Batteries make power portable and they are essential to the mobile electronic world.
This isn't just about having a laptop that can survive a flight from London to Sydney, but about building reliable long-term sensors, harvesting and storing renewable energy and making a host of other technologies feasible. In an idea world we should be looking at weeks of battery life, not hours.8. Spaceguard
: Many times in our planet's history we've had unwelcome visitors. Space is full of junk and occasionally some of it falls on Earth with very serious consequences.
We're only now understanding the role of objects hitting the Earth's surface. The most famous example is the Chicxulub crater, which was formed by an impact over 65 million years ago and is widely believed to have killed off the dinosaurs and given mammals a shot at the top species slot.
There is also growing opinion that the very building blocks of life itself may have come from material that burned its way through the atmosphere.
Arthur C Clarke wrote about a fictional organisation called Spaceguard dedicated to tracking objects which could threaten the planet, and it was this name that went on a report by Nasa in 1992, although the Working Group on Near-Earth Objects is the less glamorous name for the people behind it.
However, at this stage the whole thing is embryonic and of little practical use. We might be able to spot an incoming object (and that's not guaranteed by any means) but we can't stop or deflect it.
Despite what Hollywood will tell you, the chances of stopping an object large enough to destroy human life are slim. Blowing the object up is most likely impossible and ill-advised, since many asteroids are lose collections of rocks anyway.
This would simply turn one impact into many, with the added bonus of radioactivity if you use nuclear weapons. Deflection might be a possibility, but it is far beyind current technologies.Shaun Nichols
: Not only is there the threat of a direct impact with the Earth, but anyone who watches horror movies can tell you that encounters with comets are the second-leading cause of zombie apocalypse, behind only government-engineered super-viruses.
Given the number of different ways we are all likely to die, I'm not going to be too occupied with a comet strike. My fondness for beer and pork products will likely do me in long before an apocalypse rock hits. If not my own bad habits, there's always global warming and nuclear war to finish off the job.
There is, however, another more immediate danger that could make a spaceguard system necessary. Every month we launch more and more junk into space, and Earth's orbit is increasingly cluttered with old satellites and discarded bits of spacecraft.
At some point it will be necessary to clear up some of this orbital clutter, to keep space travel safe and reduce the risk of an object falling back to Earth and posing a danger to those on the ground.7. Atmospheric management
: Industrialisation is not going to slow any time soon. Barring a miracle discovery in new sources of energy, the burning of fossil fuels will remain the method of choice for generating power in much of the world.
To that end, we need to figure out a way to better manage the composition of the atmosphere. In cities such as Beijing, Mexico City and Los Angeles air pollution is a huge health concern, and it is a quality of life issue in thousands of other cities around the world.
Then, of course, there's the whole global warming thing. But even if you're a complete sceptic you can't argue that having to breath smoggy, polluted air is a pleasant thing.
The long-term answer, of course, will be to transition to cleaner sources of power. But in the meantime if we can find a way to help remove a sizeable portion of pollutants from the air, the Earth and its inhabitants will be much better off.Iain Thomson
: The Chinese are already showing they've got somewhere with weather control but we're a long way from being able to turn off the rain. But Shaun is right, it's the air we breathe that's of more concern. Apparently the life expectancy of a Shanghai traffic policeman is around 40 due to the toll taken on the lungs from filthy air.
Also you touched on global warming, Shaun. I don't know if global warming is man made or not, although there's a lot of compelling evidence that it is. Nevertheless it is happening and the consequences are going to change the face of the planet.
It's now looking increasingly likely that the Greenland ice sheet is going to melt if temperatures continue to rise and the resultant seven metre sea level rise over the next few centuries would leave about a third of the population looking for a new home.
The best thing is not to pollute the sky in the first place, but that ship has sailed and we're left with Plan B. There's promising research being done into cloud seeding and using iron to stimulate plankton blooms, but these are crude methods.
We need to maintain the planet and it needs to be done at source, where the pollution occurs, but in the meantime we need to do what we can to maintain an optimal environment for humanity.6. Molecular management
: Shaun and I both came up with this one independently, albeit under different names.
What we mean by the term molecular management is the everyday application of nanotechnology. The ability to build objects from a molecular level up should give us the ability to build super-strength materials, advanced chip designs and, theoretically, allow anything to be built so long as there is a blueprint.
But beyond the fancy toys there are more serious benefits to the technology. If you can break something down into its constituent atoms and then rearrange them on an industrial scale, problems of waste and pollution are largely eliminated.
If you could automate the process, such technology could also be used in planetary exploration. Numerous science fiction writers have written about processors that could be sent to the Moon or Mars and left running without human intervention to generate the raw materials for a colony.
We have had remarkable success in controlling things at a molecular level in the past few years, but the field is in its infancy. There are many hurdles to overcome before this kind of scenario is possible, but increasing amounts of money are being poured into this kind of research.Shaun Nichols
: Grey Goo
fears aside, nanotechnology is one of the most promising new forms of technology currently under development.
The idea is that you can virtually build things from the molecular level up, engineering substances to remove structural weaknesses. From an engineering standpoint, such components could prove to be the most important breakthrough since steel.
Iain noted super-strong materials, and such substances could be used for revolutionary projects
such as huge new structures (including an upcoming item on our list).
There are also possible medical applications. We mentioned wetware earlier on the list, and nano-machines could play a vital role in tasks such as seeking out and breaking down cancer cells.
What's most exciting is that nanotechnology appears to be much closer to becoming a reality than many of the other items on our list.5. Personal aviation
: We decided to leave this one fairly broad, as it covers a number of cool ideas that were supposed to be commonplace by now.
The most famous one was the jetpack. If you look at any 'world of the future' exhibit from the 1950s and 1960s, we were all supposed to be strapping little Harrier jet engines to our backs and flying over to the office in about 35 seconds. (Nobody seemed to notice that firing super-heated flames within inches of one's posterior would lead to the ultimate case of haemorrhoids.)
Then there was the rocket car. Should a jetpack not be enough to get you around, there was the prediction that we would be able to fire up the family wagon, take off 50 feet into the air and speed downtown at mach 3.
But even if the technology were there, safety issues will prevent any of those technologies from taking off any time soon. Heck, we can't even tool around on land without smacking into one another and maiming ourselves. Imagine what would happen if you were to toss highly-combustible fuel and great heights into the mix.Iain Thomson
: Where's my flying car?
has long been a shout in the industry but I have to say I'm not a fan of the idea. Having spent too long this week on Highway 880 the thought of letting other drivers into the skies seems like a recipe for disaster.
Nevertheless, time after time flying cars or other forms of personal transportation are touted as the big thing of he future. There have been numerous attempts at such a vehicle but no one's really cracked the practicality problem of getting something that's safe on the road with a big enough power pack to fly aloft in a package that anyone can fly.
If the flying car is going to be a reality there's a lot that needs to be done. While there's been promising work in automatic control systems we're going to need a very advanced power source, lightweight materials and an air traffic control system that doesn't make mistakes. I have my doubts on seeing all this in my lifetime.4. Clean internet pipes
: There are days when I suspect this really will stay in the fields of fiction, but there must be a way to fix the problems of data abuse.
The world is coming online at remarkable speed and the internet protocols that were designed in the last century aren't capable of handling the security protocols needed to stop abuse.
There is a lot of work being done by security vendors on firewalling known spam and viruses on a network level, but the same basic problems keep coming up.
However, there's a downside to all this. Any redesign would be the most contentious online issue in the world and no application of Godwin's Law would drown out dissent.
There would also be perfectly valid issues of privacy, standards and data use to be overcome. There is also the strong suspicion that any change would only be temporarily effective.
Online crime is a billion dollar industry, according to some, and it's hard to imagine all that expertise just giving up and going home. I suspect there will always be online crime as long as there is an internet.Shaun Nichols
: If you talk to those who have been around since the earliest days of the internet, they have a very simple and very discouraging explanation for our current security worries.
The internet and its basic protocols were designed to connect thousands of university and research facility systems. These systems were all fairly similar and trusted to some extent. In short, the internet was designed for connectivity, not security.
Furthermore, PC operating systems were originally designed with the intention that the user would be installing programs that they themselves purchased and as such OS builders put in steps to make that installation happen as quickly and with as little user interaction as possible.
Proponents of cloud computing services will tell you that they have the answer to a great extent. Because they are more or less creating new platforms on the fly, security protections can be put in place from the get-go, rather than so-called 'bolt on' measures such as anti-virus and firewall tools that plug major security holes.
The market, however, isn't so sure. Businesses are still unsure about cloud platforms and a lack of trust for the services remains a primary concern.3. Light-speed travel
: Of all the items on our list, this one may be the most ambitious, and hardest to achieve.
You see, from everything we know about physics and the nature of our universe, it is impossible to travel faster than the speed of light. If we can get close, however, all sorts of cool things could happen.
Einstein realised that travelling through space at high-speeds will alter the experience of time. If a craft were to achieve speeds approaching that of light, passengers would see time pass far slower than it would on Earth. This, of course, holds great promise for space exploration, but there are even cooler possibilities.
Stephen Hawking believes that reaching light speeds could be the key to achieving time travel. There are, of course, countless hurdles to achieving this, but to hit light speed would be a monumental achievement which could lead to countless scientific discoveries.Iain Thomson
: I get very nervous when someone announces that something cannot be done, and I suspect that faster than light travel will prove possible in the future, particularly if The Hawk is involved.
The distances between items of note in space are so vast that travelling faster than light is the only way to realistically get there. There are plans for 'generation ships' which would cover the vast distances of space and deliver the crew's offspring to the target planet. It's a way to deal with the distances involved, but to be frank I wouldn't trust the things to arrive in one piece after that length of time.
I suspect that at some point in the future either someone will look at a proof of why such travel is impossible, notice an error and have the mother of all headslap moments, or someone's going to have a new idea that will have the Nobel committee in complete agreement. There's a lot of people taking a serious look at the problem and someone's going to make it possible some day.
The invention of faster than light travel will not automatically lead to the discovery of other civilisations, as the distances involved are still too large.
But I suspect we'll find lots of more basic forms of life that will keep life interesting. Such travel is essential to humanity. You can't build a long-term viable civilisation on one planet, and we have to get up and out to survive.2. Space Elevator
: The concept of a space elevator is over 100 years old. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's idea for such a structure has been adapted extensively since, but is one of those concepts that relies on materials.
There are many current theoretical plans for such a structure, but the basic idea is the same. If you can run a cable from the surface up to an object in geostationary orbit you can reduce the cost of getting stuff into orbit to a fraction of current levels. A space elevator is really a smart investment for any civilisation looking to get out of the gravity well.
However, it's quite likely that you could see the concept put into action on the Moon before it's tried on Earth. It should be theoretically possible to build an elevator on the Moon using current technology, and Nasa is already funding experiments into building climbing robots that could be used to transport equipment to the lunar surface.
Looking ahead, some have suggested that the elevators could eventually be built into towers if strong enough materials become available. They could become huge 'arcologies' extending into orbit that would free up space on Earth and remove the need for satellites.
But there are serious practical problems to be overcome. Carbon nanotubes have been touted as a solution, but there is no way currently known to mass produce them to the length required.
There's also the human factor. Simply moving people up and down would be a slow process that would take days and may include too much radiation exposure. And there's so much junk in orbit right now that it would either have to be strong enough to resist an impact, or the spacefaring nations will have to hoover up all the junk.Shaun Nichols
: The rising cost of sending craft into space, combined with the looming retirement of the US Space Shuttle fleet, is only further advancing the case for a space elevator.
Eventually it might just become more practical to invest in the construction of an elevator system than to keep shooting rockets into space. Keep in mind that the rockets we use today are pretty similar to those from the 1960s, and 50 years is a lifetime in the technology and aeronautics worlds. We need to find a better way to get into space.
Remember earlier when we talked about the strength of nanotubes? This would be one of the truly revolutionary applications for them. Once the manufacturing hurdle is overcome, an elevator system could be a highly valuable asset for no other reason than the ability to get new orbital craft into place.
Manned travel might prove a bit more difficult, but if solved it could make the concept of space tourism an exciting reality.1. Clean energy
: To many people, the development of clean energy in the immediate future is about the only chance we have to avoid a catastrophic environmental transformation.
Even if you don't agree, there's not much argument that we don't need to find a way to harness the power of renewable and sustainable resources far more efficiently than we do today.
Ee are working to harness the power of wind, solar and hydroelectric systems to generate energy, but such systems are often far less efficient than either nuclear power or the combustion of fossil fuels, and generate only a small percentage of the world's total power.
This is an area where IT could have a direct impact. To generate the precision engineering and modelling data needed to produce more efficient equipment requires a huge amount of computing power.
While getting such immense computing muscle once required hugely expensive supercomputer installations, these days you can build a respectable cluster by hooking together a few dozen gaming consoles.
As supercomputing power becomes easier to obtain, the chances of scientists solving the top item on our list become better and better.Iain Thomson
: This is really the panacea that the world is looking for. After the disappointment of cold fusion, oil stocks that are going to run out eventually (and even faster if certain companies in the Gulf of Mexico don't get their act together soon) and ever-increasing energy demands we need a clean, cheap reliable power source.
There is some promise in nuclear power, but too many people find the topic too emotive and it's difficult making any headway, although Bill Gates is funding a rather interesting system that generates power by burning radioactive waste. Nevertheless, the quest for a clean, cheap power supply goes on.
Renewable energy is all very well, but it's not reliable and can't supply fluctuations in demand. Better energy efficiency would be a start, and fuel cells are showing some promise, but fusion looks to be the most likely candidate to supply our energy needs in the future.
However, as we can't sustain a reaction yet for more than a second, we may have some wait yet.