The Future Revisited

The latest technology allows your Nike shoes to tell your iPod how fast you’re going or how many calories you’ve burned during your random shuffle workout. And thanks to the satellite-based Global Positioning System, originally developed by the Navy to guide their nuclear missiles to vaporize Russia, you can now use your cell phone to guide you to any McDonalds on the planet. I’m sure it won’t be long before we’re even able to use GPS to have our iPods guide us to our misplaced Nike shoes.

On the other hand, Scott Silverman, the Chairman of the VeriChip Corporation, has proposed implanting the company’s RFID tracking chip into immigrant and guest workers. Responding to President Bush’s call to know “who is in our country and why they are here,” Silverman suggested using his company’s implants to register all workers at the border, and confirm their identities at their jobs. Livestock and lab animals have been “chipped” for decades and Silverman said, “We have talked to many people in Washington about using it” for immigrants.

The near-future could be the amazing time when we do things like cure cancer. Researchers from Harvard and MIT have already designed nanoparticles with genetic chunks that can recognize the surface molecules on cancer cells. These nanoparticles can attach themselves to cancer cells, burrow inside, and then release toxins to destroy them.

On the other hand, this type of nanotechnology requires trillions of such intelligently designed devices to be effective. To create these cancer killing “nanobots” on such a scale it will probably be necessary to enable them to self-replicate. But in the same way that cancer cells are a biological self-replicate that has gone wrong, nanobot self-replication could also go wrong, leading to something called the “gray-goo scenario.”

If a self-replicating nanobot got out of control, it would need to create about 1039 copies of itself to replace the entire biomass of the planet. This could be accomplished with 130 replications, each of which would double the amount of crazed nanobots, along with the amount of destroyed biomass. If each doubling takes about 100 seconds, then the entire Earth could theoretically be turned into a gray goo of nanobots in about three and a half hours.

So what’ll it be: Will we destroy cancer, or will we destroy ourselves? Will we find our lost shoes, or will we herd immigrants around like sheep and experiment on them like lab rats?

On college campuses the kids who will need to figure these things out are trying to get smarter & by taking drugs. The use of “smart pills” is exploding, because of their supposed ability to increase concentration, focus, wakefulness, and short term memory. Legal drugs such as Adderall, originally developed for people with attention-deficit disorder, and Provigil, for narcolepsy, are suddenly hot black market items in college libraries and dorms throughout America. “You’re going to see this trend continue, not only in schools, but in business, where mental endurance matters,” said Richard Restak, a Washington neurologist. “It’s a very competitive world out there, and this gives people an edge.”

Students using these drugs have reported various side effects such as weight-loss, sleep-loss and jitters. Another unexpected result is some of the cleanest dorm rooms in college history. As one student explained, “You’ve done all your work, but you’re still focused. So you start with the bathroom, and then move on to the kitchen”

Soon drugs (initially aimed at Alzheimer’s patients) will be available that can improve memory by 20 to 50 percent. How long before users of these “brain steroids” start setting new SAT and chem finals test records? Will physics fans boo when Barry Bondobrain comes up with a unified field theory that breaks Albert Einstein’s universe?

Then there are the robots. At a recent Robot Exhibition in Tokyo a barmanbot was mixing perfect cocktails, without ever spilling a drop. Its developer reported, “We are in talks with various American hotels to have these robots serving behind the bar. They never get ill. They never get tired.” Nearby, the Actroid DER, a life-sized robot receptionist, was busy answering questions in four languages, while pointing her servo-assisted finger to help guide questioners toward their intended destinations. An elegantly attired Ballroom Dancing Robot was teaching her human partner some new steps. In the near future robots will be available to clean house, look after children, and care for the elderly. South Korea has set a goal that 100 percent of households should have a domestic robot by 2020.

Other robot uses may prove far more controversial. “People are going to be having sex with robots in the next five years,” says Dr. Henrik Christensen, chairman of the European Robotics Network. “People are willing to have sex with inflatable dolls, so initially anything that moves will be an improvement.”

Even more controversial are robots being developed for military use. The unmanned Predator aircraft is already responsible for numerous reconnaissance functions and assassinations in the Middle East. But much smaller unmanned aerial vehicles the size of bumblebees, and with similar navigational ability, are now being contemplated. Only these “bumblebees'” stings could be lethal.

Robots that behave like insects are also being developed by European researchers to create a robo-cockroach. When their matchbox-sized “insbot” is sprayed with roach pheromones, its programmed behavior is enough to convince real roaches to follow it out of their dark hiding places and into the light. Instead of having to saturate living spaces with dangerous chemicals, St. Insbot could one day lead all the roaches in Ireland out to a place where they could be easily disposed of. Then we might have a huge, drunken, roach-free celebration in Insbot’s honor.

Deadly bumblebees or saintly robo-roaches? The future gets more interesting every day.

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