The advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution has redefined our perception of the world and drastically changed how we live. The blurred lines between mechanical, electronic, digital, and biological aspects of our lives have created the beginning of a new era that only science fiction and fantasy writers could imagine. It has also brought forth various technologies that have started making our lives easier, interesting, but not very human-like, depending on how one looks at it. Here are some such futuristic technologies that you probably didn’t know existed.
1. Atomic battery
This is a device that uses energy from radioactive decay to generate electricity. It is used in equipment that must function without supervision for long periods of time, such as spacecraft, automated scientific stations in remote locations, pacemakers, and underwater systems.
Also known as a nuclear battery or radioisotope generator, this technology was first demonstrated by Henry Moseley in 1913. During the 1950s and 1960s, there was considerable research in the field to create long-life batteries for space missions. Since then, several techniques to generate electricity from nuclear sources were found, and modern nano-scale technology has allowed the creation of new devices and better material properties that were previously unavailable.
Similar to nuclear reactors, the atomic batteries generate electricity from atomic energy, but without the chain reaction. The energy converters are either thermal, like thermoelectric or thermionic generators, or non-thermal, which extracts a part of the incident energy as it degrades into heat. (source)
2. Powered Exoskeleton
This is a wearable mobile machine that facilitates limb movement with greater strength and endurance and is powered by a system of hydraulics, motors, pneumatics, and levers.
The earliest versions of powered exoskeleton suits were developed by Nicholas Yagn in 1890. The first mobile, human-movement, integrated machine named “Hardiman” was developed together by General Electric and the US Armed Forces in the 1960s. With it, lifting 110 kilograms (250 pounds) of weight felt like lifting 4.5 kilograms (10 pounds).
In 1986, a US Army Ranger known as Monty Reed who broke his back in a parachute accident developed an exoskeleton prototype called the “LIFESUIT” of which the current prototype can walk 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) and lift 92 kilograms (203 pounds).
Current, powered exoskeletons include Cyberdyne’s HAL 5 arms and legs used in Japanese hospitals, Parker Hannifin Indego Exoskeleton for legs, Ekso Bionics eLEGS hydraulic exoskeleton for paraplegics, and Ghent University’s WALL-X exoskeleton that can reduce metabolic costs while walking. (source)
3. Transparent Image Sensor
This device is a flexible, transparent, circuit-free image sensor made of plastic film coated with fluorescent particles that can be used in user interface devices that can respond to both touch and gesture.
The transparent image sensor was developed by researchers Alexander Koppelhuber and Oliver Bimber from Johannes Kepler University, Linz, Austria, who used the phenomenon of how light gets dimmer the deeper it travels through polymer. Since, unlike existing technologies, polymers cannot be divided into individual pixels, they measured the relative brightness of light reaching the sensor array along the edges of the film to determine where the light entered.
By scaling up the process and using technology similar to that of CT but with lasers instead of X-rays, Koppelhuber and Bimber were able to make a low-resolution prototype. Through the use of advanced sampling techniques, they can also enhance the resolution. The new, touch-free technology can, in the future, be used in television and computers, and will give gamers full gesture control without the need for cameras or motion-tracking devices. (source)
4. Gravity-Powered Lamp
This is a lamp that is powered by a bag of sand or rocks, hung by a cord, which gradually comes down just like the weight drive in a cuckoo clock.
The concept of GravityLight was developed by Clay Moulton and Mike Wofsey in 2006, though early prototypes were found to be inefficient. They found that 10 kilograms of mass raised to a height of one meter gives a maximum energy of 98 joules, which at 100% conversion efficiency for five minutes, and would produce 0.32 watts and 0.16 watts at 50%. The resulting LED light was not enough for reading or working, so, they traded illumination brightness for illumination time.
Following two fundraising campaigns, Martin Riddiford and Jim Reeves developed the light further. The slowly falling weight spins gears driving the electric generator and powering the LED for 25 minutes. After that, the weight can be lifted up again with the cords to power the light for the next 25 minutes. When mass produced, these lights can serve as a zero-operational-cost alternative to normal electric lamps or kerosene lamps in poor countries. (source)
5. Mind-Controlled Robotic Limb
This is an artificial limb that can be controlled with no more than normal, subconscious effort or neural activity, and is now being used to help paraplegics and those without limbs.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), developed an advanced, mind-controlled robotic arm as part of the program Revolutionizing Prosthetics. The arm was given to Johnny Matheny of Florida who lost his arm due to cancer in 2005.
Shuichi Nishio and Christian Penaloza from Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International in Kyoto have developed another robotic arm that can be controlled by thinking. They’ve developed an algorithm that can read the electrical activity recorded by noninvasive electrodes placed on the scalp and distinguish the patterns linked to arm movement. Thinking about different tasks, like picking up a glass of water or balancing a tray, generates a different pattern of electrical activity. After reading that specific pattern, the algorithm instructs the robotic arm to move accordingly. (1, 2)
6. Translucent Concrete
This is a concrete-based construction material that contains light transmitting elements such as optical fibers to conduct light from one side of the wall to the other.
First mentioned in a 1935 Canadian patent, translucent concrete products were developed in the 1990s. The optical fibers go through the whole concrete block creating a certain light pattern on the other side. The bends in the fiber inside the concrete and the rough cut surface at the end of it decrease the light reaching the other side by more than half. It might still give enough daylight considering the non-linear response of human eyes to light. Translucent concrete is used for architectural-design purposes for facades and interior walls. (source)
7. Micro Air Vehicle
These are aircraft the size of insects that can be used for covert operations such as reconnaissance and espionage as well as for getting information about spaces that are inaccessible to humans.
In 2008, TU Delft University of Netherlands developed ornithopter named “DelFly Micro” that measures 10 centimeters and weighs just three grams. It has a camera for navigation and has been successfully tested indoors. An even smaller ornithopter measuring just three centimeters was developed by Robert Wood at Harvard University that achieved controlled flight in 2013, and landings on and takeoffs from different places in 2016. The model, however, is not autonomous and requires power through a wire.
In 2007, the US company Honeywell developed a micro air vehicle (MAV) called “T-Hawk” (tarantula hawk) which was used by the US Army and US Navy Explosive Ordinance Division to search for bombs and targets. It was also used at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan following the 2011 tsunami for capturing video and getting radioactive readings. The British Army deployed the 16-gram Black Hornet Nano Unmanned Air Vehicle to support infantry operations in Afghanistan.
Researchers are also taking inspiration from insects and birds to achieve better flight capabilities for newer models. Schools of fish and flocks of birds are also another source of inspiration to control artificial swarms of MAVs and stabilize MAV formations. (source)
8. 4D Printing
This is a technology that can create material that transforms over time depending on the environmental parameters it reacts with.
There are different approaches to how materials are printed in 4D. One way is to make them so that they respond to the transfer of kinetic energy from one medium to another. Some materials would cause the particles to bond and change form when exposed to heat. When an object is printed with hydrophilic material on one side and hydrophobic material on another side, one side would swell while the other side contracts when placed in water causing the object to change its shape.
Another way is to program physical and biological materials to change their shape or properties. This method is associated with nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing. One more approach is using stress relaxation. That is creating a material assembly from stress that’s stored in the material resulting in a change in shape. (source)
Aerogel is a synthetic, extremely light and porous material with extremely low thermal conductivity and a high melting point made from a gel whose liquid component is replaced by gas.
In 1931, Samuel Stephen Kistler first created aerogel as part of a bet with his friend on who could replace a liquid with a gas in jellies without causing them to shrink. Aerogels are made by very slowly drying the gel so that its matrix would not collapse due to capillary action as usually happens during conventional evaporation. The first aerogels were produced from silica and later with alumina, chromia, and tin dioxide. Carbon-based aerogels were first made during the 1980s.
Almost 99.8% percent of aerogel is gas which gives the material extremely low density and hence low thermal conductivity as it nullifies both conduction and convection of heat. Its melting point is 1,200 °C (2,192 °F). Despite its low density and the fact that it’s prone to shattering, aerogel is extremely strong and has immense load-bearing capability because of a dendritic microstructure. It is used for thermal insulation, filtering space dust aboard spacecraft, and can be used for absorbing heavy metals in water. (source)
Li-Fi is a wireless transmission technology that uses light from LEDs instead of radio waves to transfer data at speeds as impressively high as 224 gigabits per second.
The history of visible light communication (VLC), or using visible light for transmitting data, dates back to the 1880s. The term “Li-Fi” was coined by Harald Haas, Professor of Mobile Communications at the University of Edinburgh, at his 2011 TED Global Talk. VLC is similar to Wi-Fi, but instead uses LEDs as the medium for high-speed communication and works by switching the lights on and off at a very high rate that is imperceptible to the human eye. As the spectrum of visible light is 10,000 times larger than the complete radio-wave spectrum, it is believed to have no limitations on capacity, unlike Wi-Fi which has now almost reached full capacity.
Since light cannot penetrate walls, Li-Fi is considered more secure from hacking and the technology is expected to be cheaper than Wi-Fi. However, it is short-range and not as reliable yet. As of 2013, researchers have reached speeds of 224 gigabits per second. Li-Fi could be a better alternative for communication in hospitals as it doesn’t affect medical instruments or human bodies. (source)