The wired world in 2013

Image representing Wired Magazine as depicted ...

Image via CrunchBase

Just finished reading a fascinating end of year publication from the “Wired” stable about what to expect in 2013. Although this publication is sometimes annoying in style and somewhat fixated on start-ups, much of the editorial is top-notch. In this special issue, there are contributions from James Dyson and Richard Branson among other innovation luminaries.

Mr Dyson is somewhat disparaging about some of the innovations under the banner of green engineering. As he rightly points out, an invention that shaves a percentage point or two off the fuel consumption of a widely used aircraft dwarfs the effect of eliminating plastic carrier bags. He predicts that more information about the origin and impact of goods and services will become available in the year to come.

As I have previously written, I remain unimpressed with individual robots at the current level of technology. As James McLurkin (a renowned roboticist) points out – they are best at tasks which are dangerous, dirty or dull. When you get a large number of robots together though, they become a lot more interesting. The technology for “swarming robots” is already there and searching for an application and maybe 2013 is their year.

Optical networking (or li-fi) will come to the fore for short-range communication. Nanotechnology will reach the point of self replication. An unbelievable 200 million people will use the internet for the very first time and radar will become much more widespread. The technology will be used for everything from measuring blood pressure to providing images of internal organs without harmful radiation.

Need Wired Magazine 13.07

Need Wired Magazine 13.07 (Photo credit: Browserd (Pedro Rebelo))

Innovation has typically radiated from richer economies outwards, but Ravi Ramamurti (a distinguished professor of international business) believes that we are reaching the point where innovations are starting to flow the other way. Poorer economies through necessity have much more of an idea of efficiency. Third world countries are teaching their richer counterparts (who by far have a greater need) how to perform low-cost medical procedures for example.

Education will become free, lab grown organs may become a reality and the world will start to recover from its economic malaise. Will we finally see the much vaunted Apple TV? – who knows, but they certainly need a big success. A huge amount of their net value comes from products invented in the last 5 years and many people are starting to lose faith due to the mishaps since Jobs left this mortal coil.

All in all – a fascinating publication and if only 10% of their predictions come true, it’s going to be an exciting year!

Rise of the automatons

Model of a robot based on drawings by Leonardo...

Model of a robot based on drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can’t help feeling that every robot in production today is rubbish.

Brought up on a diet of science fiction films and books, I expect my robots to kick ass. There should be something remarkable about them. After all, C3P0 understands over 6 million forms of communication. The T-1000 is made of liquid metal and can emulate any creature it touches (or skewers with a pointy bit of its anatomy). In comparison, all modern robots are depressingly mundane.

Robots are extensively used in manufacturing. Apart from Morgans, Bentleys and a smattering of low volume models, pretty much every car on sale today is assembled robotically. Robots were built for repetitive humdrum work. Sure, cars are much more reliable these days – but where’s the romance in that?

When he wasn’t busy designing parachutes and helicopters, Leonardo da Vinci came up with a sketch of a robot over 500 years ago and I don’t think he’d be too impressed at how far we’ve come either. There’s no doubting the utility of robots. They don’t get bored and they don’t complain when they’re placed in hostile environments, but don’t expect any scintillating conversation.

Camel racing is immensely popular in Arab countries and until recently, they were jockeyed by small children. Usually, these children would have been taken from their parents and kept in appalling conditions, a practise  universally condemned by detractors. Nowadays, they race with robot jockeys made in the form of humans so as not to spook the camels. Sounds great, but if you’re going to have robot races, get rid of the camels and give the robots weapons – much more exciting.

There are 4,000 robots serving in the US military but alas not in the role of stormtrooper. They are mainly in bomb disposal. The Mars rover is a robot. At least it’s on another planet, but it hasn’t got a mind of its own and receives instructions from NASA. In 2007, robotics expert Henrik Christensen predicted that people would be having sex with robots within 4 years, so in theory the world has enjoyed robot nookie for the last 12 months.

Take me to your leader!

Take me to your leader! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think it’s going to be a long time before we get truly remarkable individual robots, but collectively, they show a lot more promise. The University of Michigan has developed a robot army that at the flick of a switch will turn into a reconnaissance team which can map out a location and pick out items of interest such as earthquake victims, IEDs or enemy robots.

If you find yourself surrounded by wasps in Afghanistan, there is every chance that they are not the yellow and black ones you’re used to. The British military special forces use miniature vehicles called wasps and they carry a very powerful sting in the form of C4 explosive, handy when faced with snipers.

With the advent of nanotechnology, scientists are quite literally “growing” microscopic robots. In time, these robots should be able to self replicate which doomsayers say will result in the world being consumed by an army of grey goo. The possibilities for such a technology are almost limitless, which means I really will be able to say to a machine one day “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot!”