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Monday, August 1, 2011

"If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see...

"If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain." Morpheus, The Matrix.

Science fiction has fascinated and delighted me since I was a little boy. My dad and I watched Star Trek, Dr. Who, Battlestar Galactica and my favorite, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Most of which, ironically, have since been reinvented at least once; Buck Rogers was already in its 2nd incarnation by the time I got to it in 1980. The appeal of Sci-Fi lies in the imaginary but conceivably plausible plot lines of incredibly advanced societies and technology and how they alter the protagonist's reality.

Sometimes our dreams of the future miss the mark entirely, “Nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality in 10 years.” (Alex Lewyt, president of vacuum cleaner company Lewyt Corp., in the New York Times in 1955), and predictions for advancement or the need for it come up wanting for imaginative capacity “There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television, or radio service inside the United States.” (T. Craven, FCC Commissioner, in 1961. The first commercial communications satellite went into service in 1965).

The reality of today is that technology is improving and evolving at an unprecedented, and frankly blinding, rate. So much so that ideas previously considered the stuff of the Sci-Fi channel (now SyFy) and summer blockbuster movies - as recent as films from the 1990s - are now being tested for production, and some are on the shelf for purchase.

Examples of such experimental technology range from the Australian-built Hoverbike (I think it's held up by the Force) and Mohamed Sadegh Samakoush Darounkulayi's omnidirectional self-balancing wheelchairs (Michelin Design Challenge entry), to fully functional solid state lasers (NAVY) and a modified virus signigicantly boosts solar cell productivity (M.I.T. Research). 

The Star Trek-like advancements that have already hit shelves (or will soon) include the Argus II - the first approved artificial retina - from California based Second Sight, holographic digital maps printed by Zebra Imaging, space tourism care of Sir Richard Branson and let's not forget the incredible augmented reality apps that effectively turn your mobile device into an interactive touchscreen overlay for life.

One of the most persistent themes in science fiction has been the idea of AI (Artificial Intelligence). True, HAL tried to kill us on our space odyssey, Robby turned on us for a short while, making us lost
and scared, but Data showed us that the trek doesn't have to include evil cyborgs and Arnold taught us that even the machines hell-bent on destroying human life can have shining moments of valor. The amazing thing is just how close we are to the theoretical technology of these on-screen robots. We've been building them to aid us with manufacturing, travel, medicine and most aspects of life, but recently we've been enabling machines to accomplish tasks that were only possible if you had a nervous system.

Humanoid machines or augmented humans can now have a highly mobile, reinforced, biomechanical exoskeleton (Lockheed Martin), pneumatic thought-controlled prosthetic arms (Toronto's Ryerson University), hexagonal light, heat and pressure sensitive skin plates (Technical University Munich), a covering of touch-sensitive flexible organic transistors capable of detecting and deciphering the molecular composition of liquid and vapor substances (Stanford), a surveillance unit that can see through walls and detect breathing at 70ft (TiaLinx), a reticulating bionic appendage that functions like an elephant's trunk (Festo), and a brain that recognizes human skeletal movement extrapolates to produce new and infinite variations of the movement (Georgia Institute of Technology). They can even have robotic sweat glands installed for chemically enhanced interaction ( Kevin Grennan, London's Royal College of Art).

The long and short of it is: The line between science and fiction has grown thin and blurry. I like it.

Sources: sh-elephant-biomimicry/17004/

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