If there was ever a time in human history which demonstrated the validity of Moore's Law, that time is now. Moore's observation of exponential technological improvements in computing hardware can be seen more broadly in a diverse range of fields of research. It's a cliched expression but it's hard not to feel that the future is now - gadgets featured in science fiction movies just a few years ago are a reality, and before long will be rendered obsolete by new emerging technologies ad infinitum. Some of this tech might enhance the way in which we allow media to entertain us, while others could have the capacity to improve our health or, conversely, destroy the planet. The internet era has opened up whole new possibilities when it comes to sharing research and ideas, and a great deal of the cutting edge is often funded by the general public through crowdfunding campaigns or released as open-source to allow for a wide variety of input. In this sense, we're living in a time of incredible progress never before seen in the history of mankind. From revolutionizing the way in which we travel the planet to new technology with the potential to integrate humans with machinery, here are ten incredible inventions which could potentially change the future of the planet.
Sometimes a movie comes along which puts the wrong kind of idea in people's heads - as classic as The Terminator is, it's hard not to imagine some talented engineer working for the military thinking that an army of robots is a good idea. Regardless of the dystopian future connotations associated with military robots, a number of militaries around the world have been developing them for some time. In the US it is Boston Dynamics who are leading the charge, with both bipedal and quadrupedal robots in the late testing stages. With Boston Dynamics being owned by Google, control of the development of military robots and the internet makes them about as close to a real-life Skynet as you can get. The worst-case scenario for the development of military robots - and one which is feared by some experts in the field - is the Singularity; the point at which machines become self-sufficient (and presumably transform the planet along the lines of the Matrix). The best-case scenario might be that they are repurposed for humanitarian purposes rather than killing people.
A new invention which, unlike the military robots, could actually save countless lives is the driverless car. Flying cars might be a way off yet (at least, ones which can be used in busy metropolises without causing carnage in the skies) but having to drive yourself from A to B could become a thing of the past. Dozens of companies are investing in research and development for the driverless car, and predictably Google is at the forefront of research with its Google Chauffeur-powered vehicles. Legislation has already been passed in several American states allowing their use, and in Virginia, 70 miles of road has been opened up for the testing of driverless cars. Provided there aren't any teething problems (admittedly unlikely) driverless cars should be commercially available in the near future. While there are concerns that millions of people employed in the transportation sector will lose their jobs, the reduction in traffic accidents and fatalities could be significant.
The way in which people consume media changes constantly - ten years ago the idea of slim tablets with touch screen interaction was something we saw in movies, yet now smartphones and other devices come with this as standard. No matter how slim and lightweight a manufacturer makes a tablet or smartphone, they can't get around the fact that it's rigid and inflexible. Introducing the flexible tablet, a device which has the potential to take the way we view images to the next level. Beyond pocket-sized flexible tablets and replacing gadgets such as Kindle, larger screens could change the way we view movies. Samsung already has a variety of flexible phones and other devices in development, so we can expect these to become standard in the not too distant future. Where visual displays might go from there is hard to say - although if movies are anything to go by then interactive holographic displays should be on the way soon.
The first and perhaps most obvious application for the Oculus Rift is in the arena of gaming - after all, this was the intended function when the company was founded and there are already plenty of games listed with Oculus Rift support. While enhancing the gaming experience through the use of virtual reality is a great thing - tiptoeing through a dimly-lit corridor in a Silent Hill game or charging at enemies in the latest Call Of Duty game will be more immersive than ever - the real potential for Rift and other VR headsets lies in its ability to be used for training purposes. Everything from medical training to skydiving lessons can be delivered through VR systems, with developers already keen to make the most of the possibilities. Amputees are already using VR to train their responses before the prosthetic limb has even been attached, while PTSD therapists are also using headsets for their sessions.
3D printing hasn't been around for very long but already it's proving that it has the capacity to bring about a radical transformation in the way in which manufacturing works, not only cutting down on production costs but also democratizing production itself. While on one end of the spectrum 3D printers are being used to construct entire buildings and companies use automated 3D printers to manufacture their products, the availability of affordable 3D printers for the consumer means that virtually anyone can print their own materials and cut out the middle man, whether it's stylish shoes (pictured above) or a model of your own face. As 3D printing becomes commonplace in the home, research into 4D printing continues. These structures are designed to transform in a pre-programmed way in response to stimuli, for instance, footwear which adapts to the user's temperature and terrain on which they're walking. It's another step towards self-repairing machinery.
When the Wright brothers first took to the skies in their flying machine, the world took a step back and gasped as they witnessed someone achieve the impossible. Ever since Leonardo Da Vinci scribbled a plan for a helicopter, the idea of taking flight like a bird had been one of mankind's dreams. Nowadays flying has become such a common thing to do that we're more often concerned with moaning about the in-flight food than we are marveling at the fact we're 20,000 feet in the sky. The next level is to go as fast as possible, and hypersonic aircraft will be the way forward. Rocket planes and space jets have already passed the Mach 5.5 point required for hypersonic travel, and while current research and development is predictably confined to the air force, it's only a matter of time before getting on a plane in London and arriving in New York less than an hour later becomes a reality.
With an over-dependence on fossil fuels driving the world towards increasing conflict and environmental degradation, there's an imperative for humanity to discover new means of generating energy which respects the environment and comes at a cost affordable to all. Initiatives into renewable energy sources are leading us towards a sustainable model for mass production of energy, but when it comes to reliable and readily available energy on the go we're still reliant on traditional batteries. All that could change with the arrival of electricity-generating fabric, capable of drawing energy from both heat and motion. Just how stylish the clothing turns out remains to be seen, but having thousands of tiny thermoelectric sensors lining your jacket could mean that you never have to worry about charging your phone ever again.
The conceptual hyperloop transportation system might not have the capacity to reach the same high speeds as the hyperspeed aircraft's 5,150 miles per hour, but with top speeds of around 760mph, it would make it the fastest method to get around on land known to man. Inserting pressurized capsules into reverse-pressure tubes which ride on an air cushion and are driven by air compressors and induction motors, the hyperloop system has been likened by its creator Elon Musk as a "cross between a Concorde and a railgun and an air hockey table." The passenger-only version has been estimated to cost approximately $6 billion. Los Angeles to San Francisco is the first anticipated route, although if the technology proves to be efficient and safe there's no reason why we shouldn't expect to see hyperloop transportation systems rolling out in other places. A 760 mph journey through the world's oceans would be an unreal experience worth having.
At one point or another, most people have probably fantasized about what they would do if they had the power to turn themselves invisible - usually, the first thing that springs to mind involves doing something you really know you shouldn't, like robbing a bank or sneaking into the White House. The idea that someone might actually design and manufacture an invisibility cloak seems completely outlandish, but inventors have already come up with a few techniques to achieve the effect. German researchers discovered a way to hide small objects by diverting light around an object, while in Japan the UTD NanoTech Institute metamaterials are used to allow a person to wear a cloak which bends light around them. It's highly unlikely that fully effective invisibility cloaks will ever become commercially available (the effect on crime rate would no doubt be huge if they did) but don't be surprised if they get a military application and are used by special forces teams.
When you think of science fiction and what the future may hold for humanity, cyborgs take things one step further than robotics, integrating man and machine for better or worse. While there are plenty of people who worry - perhaps wisely - about approaching a transhumanist era, cyborg technology is already here to stay. Replacement limbs can now be attached with incredibly sensitive reaction times and nuanced interaction with objects, while replacement eyes are being designed which are set to actually improve on our 20/20 vision. While for the most part people who have already had cyborg implants and attachments did so after accidents or to counteract existing defects, it's only a matter of time before perfectly healthy people start saving up to improve and enhance their bodies. Whether it's used to help people who have injured themselves or for less serious applications such as fully integrating wearable tech, man's march towards a world of cyborgs is well and truly underway. Before we know it the fantasy worlds of William Gibson and Ghost In The Shell will be a reality. What other incredible technology can you think of which has the potential to change the future of mankind? Why not let us know in the comments?