February 25, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

'I, Science' writers on six inventions or practices they feel will be commonplace in the future ...

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Space elevator

Andy Roast

If humans are to become a space-faring species, we must find a more efficient method of lifting our luggage into space. One idea, a ‘space elevator’, may sound like sci-fi, but many scientists and engineers have proposed how to build one.

At around 100,000 km tall, the tower would be too heavy to support itself. Instead, scientists have proposed ‘tethering’ an orbiting asteroid to the Earth – a lift could then move up and down this tether.

Yet this method is not without difficulty; we currently lack a material strong enough and light enough to build the tether, and while some suggest carbon nanotubes could fill this role, there is debate that even these are too weak. Unless these problems can be solved, it looks like we will be relying on rockets for some time yet.


Moon base

– James Keen

Colonies in space are a mainstay of science fiction, but now they may be on the verge of becoming a reality. Concerns about the long-term future of life on Earth are driving humans to venture into space, and the Moon’s proximity makes it the most obvious place for our first non-Earth inhabitancy. While the USA leads the way, both Russia and Japan plan to establish their own moon bases by 2030. NASA’s discovery of large amounts of water on the moon in 2009 has made the prospect of moon colonisation much more viable. It seems highly likely by the end of this century we will finally live on the moon.


Flying cars

– Rebecca Knowlson

Back to the Future, Blade Runner, The Jetsons… flying cars are at the core of futuristic fiction. But are these dreams soon to become a reality? Nearly a century after the first (unsuccessful) attempt at a flying car, ‘roadable aircraft’ are going mainstream. The latest models include Terrifugia’s Transition, which has foldable wings, and Pal-V’s One, which has a single rotor and propeller. While both are predominantly aircraft, requiring a runway for flight, Terrifugia has recently released plans for the TF-X, a car that can take off vertically from the road, set to be ready in 8-12 years. It’s not quite The Jetsons, but for the time being it’s pretty impressive!


Asteroid mining

– James Keen

In the next 100 years, Earth may run out of many of the elements, such as platinum and indium, that keep our gadgets working. But since many of these elements originally came from asteroids hitting the Earth, could we mine asteroids to acquire more? Two companies, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, seem to think so – they plan to start mining asteroids within the next 20 years. Sceptics of the missions point out that the cost of the mining equipment and the value of the ore can only be speculated, but given NASA’s own plans to capture an asteroid, maybe this idea isn’t so far-fetched.


Instant translation

– Laurence Pope

True translation, accurately conveying the full meaning and nuances of other languages, is an art form machines have yet to trump humans at. Basic translation software can only provide the gist of texts, translating word for word in a crude rule-based approach.

But that process may be about to change.

Microsoft is currently working on software to translate one spoken language into another with an error rate of approximately 1 in 8 words. Other text-based software such as Google Translate uses pre-and post-translated documents to ‘teach’ itself grammatical rules and other nuances of grammar and syntax.

Slowly but surely software is getting smarter. It doesn’t seem far-fetched to imagine high fidelity instant translation software being available within the next 50 years.


See-through screens

– Andy Roast

In the film Minority Report, Tom Cruise’s character accesses information by touching hyper-technological, see-through screens. These could soon become a reality as organic light emitting diode (OLED) technology advances. In contrast with normal LEDs, OLEDs are very thin and can be built into layers that are invisible to the human eye. Samsung have recently shown off a see-through window that at the swipe of a finger becomes a television set. This is all very exciting, but will your neighbours be able to watch your TV from the other side of the window? Probably best to avoid those TV guilty pleasures!


IMAGE: Veronika McQuade