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Where’s the Future? Will Ferrell’s Tour of Tech That Never Took | Wired Magazine |

March 10, 2012

Where’s the Future? Will Ferrell’s Tour of Tech That Never Took

Automatic Dog Translator

Photo: Dan Winters

From clean coal to designer babies:

Why the marvels we were promised haven’t materialized.

Automatic Dog Translator

I would’ve bet a lot of money that by now we’d have a device that would let us talk to dogs. Perhaps a helmet that would immediately decode a dog’s bark into “Hey!” or “Hungry!” or “Oh my God — cat!” But I guess maybe we just don’t care enough about saving animals. Or the world.

*Coincidentally, our time-traveling host, Will Ferrell, is the star of The Other Guys, a buddy cop comedy coming out … in the future (August 6).


Director of Photography: Keith J. Leman; Gaffer: Mikie P.; Key Grip: Brian Elioff; AC/DIT: Bobby Hewitt; Production Design: Ed Murphy/OT Ashton for Art Works Hollywood, Inc.; Stylist: Amy Meyer; Groomer: Simone Almekias-Siegl for Jemma Kidd; Fembot Hair/Make-up: Darcy Gilmore; Fembot: Melanie Molnar/Bobby Ball Agency; Dogs: Performing Animal Troupe

Photo: Dan Winters

Food in a Pill

Eating is so time-consuming. All that tedious mastication — couldn’t we just cram the stuff we need for survival into a Tylenol-sized tablet and be done with it? Well, no. It turns out that a food pill, while the essence of convenience, would violate the laws of physics. The average person needs to ingest around 2,000 calories a day. Carbohydrates and proteins provide about 4 calories per gram; fat provides about 9 calories per gram. If you put 2,000 calories’ worth of fat into pill form — the most efficient way to do it — you’d need to pop roughly half a pound of pills a day. That’s almost 450 standard-sized capsules. And you still wouldn’t be getting your other vital nutrients. But look, physics aside, dinner in a capsule is depressing; a burger is delicious. Think of it as a cheese-dripping, bacon-topped patty-sized pill in a bun. — Erin Biba

Self-Driving Cars: Safe Texting at 65 mph!!

To traffic-weary drivers, it sounded great: Let technology handle tedious tasks like accelerating, steering, and braking. Cars — linked to road sensors and controlled by computer — could drive closer together, increasing highway capacity and fuel efficiency while reducing accidents and the need for new roads. Home, Hal!

It’s not hard to make individual vehicles at least partly automatic — luxury automakers have recently introduced adaptive cruise control, which adjusts a car’s speed based on the position and speed of the vehicle ahead of it. But a completely driverless network requires pricey road sensors. Litigation risks are another concern — imagine the lawsuits that could stem from faulty autopilot systems.

Despite these drawbacks, Richard Bishop, a former federal researcher and now an industry consultant, says that “low-speed automation” systems, which control vehicles in heavy congestion, could be in high-end autos by 2015. Translation: Traffic jams will be with us for a while. — Daniel McGinn

Nuclear Spaceships

Well before Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, scientists knew that chemical propellants could take us only so far — they just don’t offer enough pop per pound. The obvious solution is nuclear energy. Yet we still don’t have a working nuke ship.

The earliest attempt to develop such a craft was Project Orion, launched in 1958. The concept: Create a vessel that would eject small atomic bombs from its rear. These would explode near a “pusher plate” attached to the bottom of the ship, and the energy pulses from the detonations would propel the ship at incredible speeds — an Orion spacecraft could have achieved a top velocity of 5 percent the speed of light (more than 33 million miles per hour). A 258-day trip to Mars was scheduled for 1965. Why didn’t it happen? In 1963, the Partial Test Ban Treaty outlawed nuclear explosions in space. Project Orion died on the spot.

An option that’s more politically feasible than bomb-powered spaceflight is nuclear thermal propulsion. This approach involves an onboard fission reactor powered by highly enriched uranium-235. Once flicked on, the reactor would theoretically heat hydrogen up to 3,100 degrees Kelvin, then shunt superheated gas out the ship’s tail. Such a craft would have more than twice the power of a chemical rocket.

The basic feasibility of nuclear thermal propulsion was proven during the 1960s, when a fission-powered engine called Nerva was tested successfully in the Nevada desert. But the Nerva program was killed in 1973, when a budget crunch forced NASA to abandon its expensive Mars-mission dreams in favor of the more cost-efficient space shuttle. The agency never got a chance to solve the remaining technical hurdles, like how to fire up the reactor again and again without catastrophic failure.

Some folks might be a wee bit resistant to the idea of a fission reactor flying overhead, but advocates of nuclear thermal propulsion insist it’s safe, since the reactors wouldn’t kick in until the ships were far from Earth. True, in the case of an accident in the atmosphere (as a ship made its way into space), some uranium would fall on the planet. The chief concern isn’t contamination, though; it’s the fact that the U-235 could be recovered by bad guys. It’s great for making bombs. — Brendan I. Koerner

Edible Fake Beard

It’s the year 2010: Why hasn’t anyone designed an edible fake beard? I don’t know how many times I’ve arrived late to some high-class function and the kitchen has just closed. Guess what? I’m starving, but there’s nothing to eat. How many time have I thought to myself, “Boy, I wish I could eat my fake beard.” I will admit that on a rare occasion, I have tasted fake beard. Take it from me: terrible. It’s time for someone to invent a delicious, edible fake beard… and make millions.


And while we’re at it, where’s my dang … hot dog taco → vodka water slide → implantable phone implantable caffeine drip Smell-O-Phone Taste-O-Phone Feel-O-Phone Hear-O-Phone (oh wait, never mind)


Illustrations: Nishant Choksi

Photo: Dan Winters

Laser Guns

In the 50 years since Hughes Research Lab demonstrated the first laser, those concentrated light beams have been adapted to read DVDs, perform eye surgery, and point at things. But while the US military has sunk billions into developing directed-energy weapons, it has reaped only disappointment. Sure, lasers powerful enough to destroy missiles and planes have existed since the 1970s, but they have yet to be brought successfully to the battlefield, and they sure as hell aren’t going to fit in a thigh holster.


Chemical lasers, long the Pentagon’s favorite form of death ray, can generate titanically powerful beams, but you have to mix loads of dangerous substances to generate lots of energy, and that makes them potentially more dangerous to our own soldiers than to our adversaries. Solid-state electric lasers are smaller, easier to operate, and can fire more shots — but are much less potent. Only in the past year have prototypes delivered a weapons-grade 100 kilowatts of power — but the hardware is so bulky it takes a 747 to house it. So for now, when it comes to killing people, we’re stuck with bullets. — Vince Beiser

Designer Babies

If Gattaca taught us anything, it was that the future will be full of Jude Law look-alikes who love nothing more than running and doing complex math. If only. In reality, the prospect of choosing your baby’s genetic gifts like toppings on a Brave New World pizza is as remote as ever. The most science has come up with is screening for sex and a few diseases, like sickle cell anemia. Preselecting specific characteristics has so far proven impossible.

That’s because our genetic makeup is as complicated as it is capricious, and very few traits are expressed by a single gene. Height, for example, is controlled by at least 20. And even then, these genes are only 5 percent of the reason people reach a particular height. The other 95 percent is a mystery. Traits like skin color, intelligence, and susceptibility to cancer and heart disease are even less well understood.

Then there’s the matter of ethics. Genetic manipulation is frowned upon by the science community, not least because we’d be messing with stuff we don’t understand. Instead, researchers are using their knowledge of the genome to try to cure life-threatening diseases. Besides, doesn’t everyone think their baby is already perfect? — Erin Biba

The Singularity
Live Forever! (Under the Rule of Your Robot Overlords)

Some call it the Rapture of the Nerds; others fear it’s the end of humanity. Either way, the Singularity — a term popularized by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge in 1993 — is due to hit right after we finally crack the problem of artificial intelligence. The idea is that once we create an entity that thinks faster than a human, it will design better hardware and software to run on, making itself even smarter. We’ll finally be able to upload our consciousness to the cloud. Either that, or our world will come to be dominated by minds as far beyond ours as we’re beyond fruit flies. Let’s hope the machines are friendly!

There’s no secret Pentagon committee making contingency plans just yet (as far as we know). And no wonder. The necessary first step — creating an artificial intelligence — is proving intractable. Scientists have assumed that unless there’s some supernatural aspect to thought, we ought to be able to reverse-engineer this sucker. But so far, the mechanics of human cognition remain largely unknown.

Another problem is hardware. Machines still fall many orders of magnitude short of a mammalian brain in terms of computing power. But recent efforts in computational neuroscience — a field that attempts to replicate how the brain processes information — hold promise. Researchers at IBM say they’ve run a cortical simulator on a supercomputer; the simulator was able to run at the scale of a cat’s brain. A Darpa-funded project aims to build hardware that mimics biological thinking. And early theoretical work on memristors — circuit elements with the ability to “remember” — opens tantalizing prospects.

The Singularity isn’t going to happen tomorrow. But if you start seeing headlines about talkative brain simulations or overly imaginative software, you might want to rethink any long-term plans. — Charles Stross

Flying Cars — That Go 40 Feet

I don’t think it’s greedy to ask for a sensible car that can fly a very modest distance. Let’s say 40 feet. With 40 feet, you could hop in and out of traffic. Or simply show off by hovering over your friends and colleagues. Then just watch: Someone will get motivated to get a car to fly 50 feet. Then 50 feet turns into 100 feet. Before you know it, we’ll have flying cars and be saying to ourselves, “Wow, that was easy.”


Not to mention … Six Million Dollar Man march infinity-sided die hands-free shampoo boneless chickens heart-healthy bacon time-shifting alarm clock sturdier toy lightsaber laser beam contacts


Illustrations: Nishant Choksi


Still waiting for WiMax — you know, the souped-up, next-gen Wi-Fi that surrounds you at all times and lets you access the Internet via a radio transmitter up to 30 miles away? Then you must reside in New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. If you live in most other cities in the US (or the world, for that matter — experts estimate that WiMax will cover 1 billion people by 2011), then you might already have the wireless technology on your smartphone or laptop. You just know it by another name: 4G. — Erin Biba


Everything we use — everything we are — is made of smaller stuff. The entire universe is just subatomic particles stuck together with wispy mysterious forces. So why not take command of that nanoscale world? Grab individual molecules and build tiny gears, wires, and even mechanical computers. Make wee robots out of simple, strong, engineered diamond. The result was to be a kind of magic “bottom- up” assembly that could generate anything from a steak to a couch to a car.

That all turns out to be exactly as hard as it sounds. Sure, molecular machines called ribosomes use genetic information to build the parts of every living thing — a process so robust that MIT computer scientist Tom Knight once called biology “the nanotechnology that works.” But biology happens for the precise reason that utopian nanotech can’t: The world of the ultrasmall is astonishingly violent. The surfaces of objects turn out to be seething frenzies of motion — atoms vibrating thousands of times a second, bonds forming and breaking. This energetic mess is what powers cellular machinery — but it blows apart anything humans engineer to do the same job.

Scanning tunneling microscopes — basically needles with tips about 100 angstroms wide — can spell out words with xenon atoms but not much else. DNA robots exist, but they can’t do much more than scuttle. Beyond that? A nanotech-powered “diamond age” will have to wait. The upside: so will a world disassembled into “gray goo” by nanomachines. — Christopher Mims

Quantum Computing

Blame Richard Feynman. In 1982, the physicist proposed harnessing quantum weirdness — the behavioral quirks and paradoxes of matter at subatomic scales — for spooky-fast computation. It was just plausible enough to inspire a generation of PhD students to make a quantum leap for glory. It’s hard to blame them — the idea sounds so … futurey.

That’s unlikely to change any time soon. Theories on quantum computing abound, but despite minor advances, the most celebrated quantum computation yet achieved has been the factoring of the number 15 into 3×5 — or about what mathletes can do in the second grade.

Quantum computers were supposed to tackle the toughest calculations, like finding patterns in brain waves and predicting weather really well. They wouldn’t just be exponentially faster than conventional computers; they would theoretically be able to run every possible permutation at the same time.

Theories aside, the biggest roadblock, says MIT computer scientist Scott Aaronson, is decoherence — the tendency of computational “qubits” (quantum bits) to lose their special properties when they interact with … anything. The result is a catch-22: “For quantum computation, it’s necessary to keep the qubits almost fanatically isolated from their environment,” Aaronson says. “But you also need to manipulate the qubits to carry out the computation.” If only we had a quantum computer to help us. — Thomas Hayden

A Birthday Cake With a Burrito Inside

It’s been like this for years: You slice into a birthday cake, hoping for a surprise, and instead you get, well, just plain cake. Wouldn’t it be nice to cut open a birthday cake and find a delicious 2-pound burrito nestled in there? Then you could truly have your cake and eat it, too. Not to mention, it would solve the age-old problem of finishing off an entire birthday cake only to end up ordering out for burritos an hour later. Annoying, right? You know what I’m talking about?


Plus, what about … flaming sword 1,000-story building jet-powered surfboard passive butt-toner glow-in-the-dark cat pocket barbecue extrudable claws auto-regenerating pencil retractable platform shoes Coinstar couch living, breathing, genetically engineered Cookie Monster


Illustrations: Nishant Choksi

What We’ve Lost
The people, places, and things that were once the future—but vanished.

Personalized Medications

Weren’t we supposed to have drugs tailored to our DNA by now? A gene scan would predict whether we’d respond to a treatment — and even what the dosage should be.

Those smarter drugs are coming, but very slowly. First, Big Pharma had to quit focusing on churning out sequels to blockbuster drugs and prioritize products that help smaller groups of patients. Even then, earning FDA approval for a new drug takes years, as does developing the tests to match people to pills.

For some people, however, the future is here: Variations in three genes determine how a person will metabolize a blood thinner called warfarin, and many docs now run genetic tests before writing a prescription. Cancer treatment in particular has benefited from pharmacogenomics. Herceptin can save the lives of breast cancer patients whose tumors over-express the HER2 gene. Two other drugs target genes expressed in certain colorectal tumors. What’s more, in June several cancer centers formed an alliance to use DNA sequencing to help patients choose the right treatment. Medicine is getting more personal every day. — Steve Silberman

Supersonic Airlines

It was the next best thing to teleportation: Between 1977 and 2003, anyone with enough money could get from New York to London in a sound-barrier-smashing three and a half hours. But futuristic air travel became a thing of the past when British Airways and Air France grounded their famous Concorde jets seven years ago. The flights were pricey, and demand dwindled after a fiery crash in 2000 made travelers wary of the planes. But the allure of a day trip to Paris hasn’t faded. Here are a few new ventures that are keeping the dream alive. — Erin Biba

Aerion Corporation
Proposal: Business jets similar to the Concorde but with a more advanced wing design will fly just under the speed of sound in populated areas. Over places like Siberia, where that pesky sonic boom won’t bother anyone, top speeds will be up to Mach 1.6.

ETA: At least five years. The aircraft is still in development.

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency
Proposal: Japan’s version of NASA is working on a craft that would use a special low-drag frame. Its ultra-aerodynamic body shape will theoretically allow it to cross the sound barrier with little or no boom.

ETA: At least five years to surpass Mach 1 in silence, 10 years to hit Mach 5.

Service: Experience the supersonic travel of tomorrow, today, on a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter that will take you on high-speed flights to the edge of space.

Cost: Starts at $30,000 per ride.

Ray Gun That Brings Mannequins to Life

Just about every day I walk by window displays and wonder: What if those mannequins could talk? What are they thinking or feeling? What if one of those mannequins is secretly a great future leader or scientist or doctor? What if that mannequin has the cure for cancer but we will never know, because he or she is frozen … because they are a mannequin. Well, with a simple zap of this ray gun, we would have answers to all these nagging questions at long last. Or we would be murdered by an army of conscienceless mannequins.


Don’t forget … force field trampoline bed padded ceiling rocket shoes hangover-free alcohol tractor beam car that transforms into thing that is not a car self-cleaning house self-cleaning Q-tips in-home plastic surgery kit


Illustrations: Nishant Choksi

Photo: Dan Winters


Professional robot maker Colin Angle has some disappointing news for you: Don’t expect to get your own wisecracking C-3PO anytime soon. “There’s no good business model for a robot servant,” says Angle, cofounder of iRobot, which makes military bots and the Roomba vacuum. The problem: Nobody wants to pay massive amounts of cash for the androids we are capable of making today.

Sure, Asimo wows convention-goers the world over, MIT’s emotive Nexi is a YouTube hit, and a robot receptionist recently officiated at a Japanese couple’s wedding. But they and their other experimental siblings cost as much as $1 million apiece, gobble lots of energy, and just aren’t that smart. (Granted, that goes for some of your real-life companions, too.)

Even robotic pets, a simpler proposition, suffer from the drastic disconnect between cost and ability. Sony’s AIBO mechanical dog won a cult following, but the $2,500 electromutt mostly failed to perform as instructed and so didn’t sell well enough to stave off android euthanasia. And please forget about basic pleasure-model sexbots. The few that are on the market, like Japan’s Honey Dolls, start at $5,580 and are more off-putting than on-turning with silicone skin, prerecorded cooings, and the regrettable need to be cleaned after use.

The truth is that almost any task can be done more cheaply and efficiently by (a) other humans or (b) inexpensive, single-purpose intelligent appliances that have more in common with a blender than Rosie the maid. That’s why we already have bots that build cars, defuse bombs, and clean gutters, but none that make conversation and dinner at the same time. “You don’t want a humanoid robot,” insists Maja Mataric of the University of Southern California’s Robotics Research Lab. “You want a bunch of machines that fill service niches.” The good news: Since it’s only $200, when your Roomba becomes self-aware and tries to enslave you, you can just get a new one. — Vince Beiser

Vat-Grown Meat

Imagine a hunk of pricey animal flesh — say, wagyu beef or jamón ibèrico — suspended in a tank of nutrients, perpetually expanding. Vat-grown meat — it’s what’s for dinner! Well, maybe someday. R&D in the young field of tissue engineering has so far focused mostly on conjuring flesh for medical transplants — scientists have successfully replicated human skin, blood vessels, and even a bladder. As for more delicious tissues, it turns out that many of the same things that make it hard to replicate a complex organ like a heart make it hard to replicate a prime cut of meat — that texture, that flavor, that perfect balance of muscle and fat. But we’re still trying. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, for example, is offering $1 million to whoever can mass-produce the best cruelty- free chicken nuggets by June 30, 2012. A panel of judges will taste-test entries for authenticity — no fair drowning them in honey-mustard sauce. — Aaron Rowe

Clean Coal
Just Hide 6 Million Tons of CO2 a Day

As oxymorons go, “clean coal” is right up there with “Donner party.” Never mind toxic sludge, coal-fired power plants also produce more Earth-warming CO2 per kilowatt-hour than plants running on any other fuel source. And wouldn’t you know, both the US and China have enough coal in the ground to last at least 100 years. The good news is that we already have the technology to use it without melting the polar ice caps. It’s called carbon capture and storage — sucking up the CO2 that results from burning fossil fuels, compressing it into liquid form, and pumping it into the ground.

So what’s the hang-up? Well, first there’s the matter of transporting and storing all that liquefied CO2. If every one of the nation’s 1,500 or so coal-fired generators were retrofitted for capture, we’d have to dispose of some 6 million tons of CO2 a day. But the real devil is in the economics. Clean coal electricity is projected to cost at least 30 percent more than conventional coal power. Result: negligible private investment despite billions in government subsidies. The thing is, if we want to stop climate change, a 30 percent premium isn’t too bad. Land-based wind energy costs about 50 percent more. But until we figure out how to make clean coal an attractive investment, we’re stuck with the dirty stuff. — Lee Simmons

Chewbacca-Mask Weddings

When we saw Star Wars as kids, everyone in the neighborhood had the same reaction: Wow, what a great movie! And then: Chewbacca’s the best! I’m pretty sure that in the future, people will get married looking like Chewbacca. I’m heartbroken that this is not already standard practice for a bride and groom. Sure, it’s caught on in places like Portland and the isle of Crete, but it’s not the same, and it makes me sad. Also very angry.


And another thing … watch projector brain projector Nerf Formula 1 cars 62-gallon wineglass sleep outsourcing jelly-doughnut gun waffle gun Reddi-wip foie gras Lego panopticon Talking albino robot mini-monkey bartender


Illustrations: Nishant Choksi

Photo: Dan Winters


There are lots of excuses for why we don’t have jetpacks. For example, you’re always hearing about how they need to be “controllable” and “stable.” Or that they cost thousands of dollars but hold only 40 seconds of fuel, which isn’t even enough to get you to safe parachute height. And that you can’t use stronger fuels without the risk of “burning off your legs.” Sometimes people point out how useless they are, calling them “unicycles in the sky, except at least you can juggle on a unicycle and it doesn’t send you into a telephone wire at 70 miles per hour.” But the real reason we don’t have jetpacks? Because the engineers at Bell Aerospace, who initially developed one in 1961, insisted on calling it a rocketbelt. Rocketbelt? Who the hell wants a rocketbelt? Come on. That’s just plain dangerous. — Robert Capps



If you want to make something invisible to an infrared or radio receiver, cloak the object in a plastic shell covered with a pattern of ultrafine copper or silver lines. Called a metamaterial, this surface acts like thousands of tiny repeating antennas. When that infrared beam or radio wave hits one “antenna,” the signal gets passed to the next and then the next and so on, eventually getting seamlessly relayed around the object. The receiver never registers that the signal encountered interference. To it, the object in question is invisible. Now move along the electromagnetic spectrum from infrared to visible light and everything should work the same way, right? There’s a catch: Our receivers — i.e., eyeballs — are pretty good at seeing stuff, so the slightest flaw in the metamaterial would reveal objects hidden beneath it, but they’d look fuzzy, like a bad hologram. So we’ll have to wait until someone invents a way to produce absolutely uniform metamaterials. That could take 20 years or 200 — but at least we can see it coming. — Erin Biba

Fusion Power
Heat Plasma to 150 million Degrees Celsius and Contain It — Shouldn’t Be a Big Deal.

Stars do it, so why can’t we? That’s the attitude of nuclear-fusion optimists, who believe that mankind can create almost unlimited energy by fusing atomic nuclei. It’s how the sun and other celestial gasbags stay lit, by subjecting hydrogen to massive amounts of heat and pressure. Thermonuclear bombs rely on fusion, too, though in a notably uncontrolled fashion. The trick to harnessing the phenomenon for peaceful purposes is to keep it contained — and, of course, to make sure the reaction produces more energy than it consumes.

Physicists have declared imminent victory several times since the early 1950s, using such “bottles” as magnetic fields, lasers, and sound waves to contain ionized gases (also known as plasmas). But the most promising methods have invariably disappointed over the long run. “The problem is that plasmas are really creative at getting out of the bottle,” says Barrett Rogers, a Dartmouth College physics professor who focuses on fusion. “Their behavior is so complex and varied that it’s hard to invent a really effective bottle.”

The bigger the bottle, however, the better its ability to corral plasma. At least, that’s the theory behind ITER, fusion’s next great hope. Currently under construction in southern France, ITER is a gargantuan machine in which plasmas will be heated to around 150 million degrees Celsius and contained between superconducting magnets in a vacuum chamber. The completed contraption will weigh a whopping 23,000 tons — as much as three Eiffel Towers — and cost more than $12 billion. But its goal is exceedingly modest: to produce 500 megawatts of power for several minutes. That’s hardly the constant flow of thousands of megawatts that utility companies currently produce. And there’s no telling whether ITER will be able to handle the physical stresses of its mission. These guys should really watch Spider-Man 2. — Brendan I. Koerner

Underwater City

I’m not crazy, I’m not asking for multiple underwater cities. I’m just asking for one. It could be called something ominous and scientific like Sector H12B or cute like Taylortown, named after the city’s founding father, Garth Taylor. Who, of course and unfortunately, died before he ever saw his underwater city completed. There would be a tasteful statue in the middle of town dedicated to Taylor, wearing a scuba mask as he talks to children gathered at his feet.


Illustrations: Nishant Choksi



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