In 1863, Jules Verne wrote Paris in the 20th Century in which he predicted, with incredible accuracy, a wide array of societal advancements, including glass skyscrapers, a rise in illegitimate births, and feminism. Though ridiculed at the time, Verne successfully saw the patterns of emerging social issues, and envisioned the solutions that might address them.
Every advancement in technology has offered us a new form of convenience, although sometimes it has come coupled with a contamination of the values we aspire to preserve. We could not have taken to the skies in flight or roads by car, without aggressively adding to the pollution of our air. That is the nature of progress — not a bargain, but a paid cost.
The very heart of sci-fi literature seeks to imagine how these theoretical or developing technologies might shape our society and the collective human condition. While discussions over the emergence of mind-controlled prosthetics, robotic warfare, and self-driving cars continue to grow, several other technologies already exist today, and enjoy no public scrutiny.
1. Brain Hacking
On the heels of Obama’s announced Brain Initiative, a lot of research programs focused on the human mind will begin to emerge. But with the Department of Defense backing the majority of the programs, perhaps people should become aware of some of the technologies that have already been developed.
Usenix Security has successfully hacked the human brain by monitoring thought patterns associated with sensitive information.
Transcranial Direct-Current Stimulation (tDCS) is a form of electric neuro-stimulation that increases the effectiveness of certain regions of the brain. Originally developed to help repair brain injuries, tDCS has also been used to enhance language and mathematical ability, attention span, problem solving, memory, and coordination (think of Neo learning Kung-Fu in The Matrix).
Voice-to-skull technology has the chilling possibility of projecting a speaker’s voice directly into a person’s head — potentially confusing enemy soldiers, making people susceptible to subliminal suggestion, faking religious experiences, or pushing the unstable over the edge of insanity. The Son of Sam serial killer, David Berkowitz, believed his neighbor’s dog was possessed by a demon giving him murderous commands. How many of us would question our own sanity if every time our pet walked into the room a voice told us to kill?
2. Speech Jammer Guns
Speech jammer guns can be pointed at people from a moderate distance, causing them to instantly lose their ability to talk. They work through an auditory feedback principle, which plays the person’s voice back at slight delay. The victim’s brain can’t compensate for the delay and interrupts itself mid-speech. Quarrelling couples may enter a new level of fury, should they choose to whip one of these out mid-argument.
Interestingly, the device has the reverse effect on those afflicted with speech impediments, and has been seen to minimize the symptoms of stutterers.
With Virgin Galactic fast approaching its maiden voyage, the idea of commercial space travel is gaining common acceptance. Demonstrations of incredibly heat-resistant materials like Space Shuttle Thermal Tile have gone a long way toward explaining the rigorous requirements needed to survive the harshness of space – but few of them are more fascinating than Aerogels.
Aerogels are a synthetic, porous, and ultra-light material created by replacing the liquid components of a gel with gas. The resulting solid material has an extremely low density and unbelievably low thermal conductivity.
If you were to wear a suit made of the material, someone could engulf you in a flamethrower and you wouldn’t even feel the heat. It’s thousands of times lighter than glass, but can be formed into rigid shapes that can suffer an incredible amount of force. They are often used by NASA to collect stardust.
This fascinating technology recognizes almost any human language, and instantly translates the text in real time from a variety of environments. It's still being perfected, but imagine combining this with the emergence of Google Glass and being able to travel the world, reading signs, instructions, menus, and any other linguistic challenge with ease.
5. Argus Surveillance
Amid our debates about NSA digital surveillance and drone warfare, we have avoided asking if there are other technologies we aren’t even aware of. The Argus system allows its controllers an unprecedented view over the anthill of humanity — zoomable down to the finest detail, recording a digital history of every movement and interaction of every city. This perspective over the world was once reserved for gods alone.
6. Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactors
The above video is the most succinct summary of Thorium reactors available, but the essence of the argument is that nuclear power has a lot of misinformation and bad PR to get over before people realize that it could very well solve almost all of our energy needs. Of all the available nuclear options, none is more safe, efficient, stable and ideal than LFT reactors.
Thorium is far more common than Uranium, and is so energy dense you could hold a lifetime supply in your hand. The sheer abundance we have available could supply our energy needs for several generations. Though not technically a renewable energy, the reality is that solar and wind farms take up too much space and don’t deliver energy efficiently enough to meet our current needs. Furthermore, oil extraction is getting more hazardous and expensive, and the environmental dangers of fracking are still very much in dispute.
The main problem is that people still fear the idea of having a nuclear reactor near their town or city. Japan's recent disaster with Fukushima only exacerbated these fears, even though the actual death toll from radiation was: none. While the final sick count was also a resounding: none.
The most important fact to realize is that the reactor disasters we hear about, like Chernobyl, are based on decades-old reactor designs. There are worlds of new safety measures in place with modern-day designs that make new reactors near-indestructible. There are still massive engineering hurdles and funding needed before Thorium reactors can be introduced to the public, but the first step is to help people realize the benefit of this option.
Coupled with electric cars, a nation run on Thorium could soon eradicate almost all forms of human pollution. Another noteworthy benefit of Thorium, is that it produces no weapons-grade nuclear materials.