The future is when? The state of emerging technologies
Tuesday, July 23, 2019
For better or worse, Elon Musk has done it again.
On July 16, Musk — billionaire, physicist, founder of multiple envelope-pushing tech startups and the real-life answer to Marvel’s Tony Stark — unveiled his latest project: Neuralink, an implantable "neural interface" designed to merge human and machine minds.
It’s a technology that, until recently, existed only in the realm of science fiction, and imaginations are already running wild, with commentators speculating on a potential Tesla/Neuralink team-up, among other applications.
But as we prepare for the grand future we’ve seen in movies and books, a dose of perspective might be in order. After all, it wasn’t that long ago when people envisioned cars zipping across city skylines in the year 2000.
With that in mind, here’s a quick rundown of some other major technological advancements and how they’re coming along:
Also known as "autonomous vehicles," self-driving automobiles are a hot topic for car manufacturers, who are pouring money into R&D and snapping up engineering talent in a bid to stay ahead of their rivals. Based on the headlines, you might think this long-awaited technology is finally upon us, but the reality is a bit more complex.
Currently, experts estimate that about 80% of the technology needed to roll out self-driving cars is built and ready, but the remaining 20% represents a major hurdle.
Ironically, the biggest challenge to building a safe autonomous vehicle is accounting for the very unsafe human elements that affect the driving experience — other drivers acting unexpectedly, pedestrians ambling onto the road, and more. The issues on this front have tempered the optimism for AI-powered cars, and while delivery and freight services continue to express a keen interest in the technology, others expect it may be at least another decade before self-driving cars hit the road en masse.
Continuing on the theme of advances in transportation technology, we have high-speed train travel, which isn’t actually a “futuristic” concept so much as an existing one that continues to evolve.
Since debuting in the mid-20th century, high-speed trains (traveling 120 miles per hour or more) have cropped up to connect major cities in dozens of countries, though they’re failed to gain a major foothold in the United States, largely due to project costs and infrastructure demands.
That may change with the advent of Hyperloop, another of Elon Musk’s brainchildren, which is set to nearly double the top speed of even the fastest existing trains. In a recent test, Musk reported that a Hyperloop pod was able to achieve a maximum speed of 288 miles per hour — before exploding.
That’s not an optimal result, but it may spur interest in "lower" high-speed lines across the nation.
We’ve seen significant advances in AI and automation in the past few years, but how are we progressing in the development of full-fledged walking, talking robots?
Actually, they’re already here — though they currently resemble the Jetsons’ maid, Rosie, more than they do "Westworld’s" Dolores. But while they’re trendy to trot out at tech shows, the dream of an all-purpose robot — built to handle numerous household chores while offering the occasional pithy one-liner — is still far off, with engineers focusing on more specialized designs built to handle a small number of tasks, such as delivery work.
For the time being, you’re stuck washing your own windows.
Moore’s Law posits that the speed and capability of computers doubles every two years, and the steady forward march of technology seems to support that principle. But while it may be exciting to watch as real life begins to approach the future we’ve seen laid out in our entertainment, it’s important to remember to temper our expectations.
If for no other reason, we can at least spare ourselves the embarrassment when an overpromised technology ends up underdelivering (Google Glass, anyone?).
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