Often, when we read the news, it can feel like we’re living in a sci-fi film. Self-driving cars, virtual assistants in the home, Augmented Reality apps that can make you feel like you’re landing on the moon – these are all incredible innovations that change the way we see and interact with the world. In light of this, we have decided to round up a few other extraordinary tech examples that have the potential to alter and improve the way we live.
One of the problems with robots we currently have is their ability to adapt. Industrial robots are only effective when everything else in the assembly line runs smoothly, meaning that an adjustment of mere centimetres can cause them to fumble during productivity. However, this may be changing. Although it is still impossible to programme a robot to pick up an object after looking at it (the way a human does), they can now use virtual trial and error to learn to manipulate the object instead.
A robot named Dactyl, the project of San Francisco non-profit OpenAI, has taught itself to flip a toy building block in its fingers, a feat of dexterity that is incredibly impressive for a modern robot hand. The hand itself isn’t engineered any differently to what could be described as an ‘off-the-shelf’ robot hand, however, as MIT Technology Review puts it, it uses “what’s known as reinforcement learning, a neural-network software that learns how to grasp and turn the block within a simulated environment before the hand tries it out for real. The software experiments, randomly at first, strengthening connections within the network over time as it gets closer to its goal.” Advanced dexterity is not a reality just yet, but these kinds of breakthroughs are paving the way for further innovations – both industrially and in day-to-day life.
Whatever your beliefs about an animal-fuelled diet, it is undeniable that farming livestock takes a huge toll on that planet – a toll that is simply unsustainable in the long term. Greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution and mass deforestation are all direct results and, considering the UN is predicting humans will consume 70% more meat by 2050 than they did in 2005, this does not bode well. Unfortunately, people are still unwilling to give up meat altogether, even in light of this information – luckily scientists have been working on some alternatives.
One such exciting option is lab-grown “meat”, which involves extracting muscle tissue from animals and growing it in bioreactors. According to reports, the resulting product has much the same look as meat, although the taste is still being worked on. However, although exciting, the environmental impact of this innovation is unknown – it may turn out to be a negligible improvement. Plant protein, on the other hand, uses far less water, land and fossil fuels to produce. Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods use things like pea protein, soy and plant oils to replicate the texture and taste of authentic meat and are currently expanding with record-breaking speed. Perhaps the future can be meatless? Or, at the very least, very less meaty.
When Siri and Alexa were first introduced, it felt like the future had arrived. A voice-controlled assistant that could carry out commands was both revolutionary and slightly frightening. What were the implications of this technology? Was it going to be helpful, like J.A.R.V.I.S. in Iron Man or gain sentience and turn on us like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Well, neither of those things really happened. Alexa can skip to the next song and Siri can (sometimes) successfully set an alarm but neither have really lived up to their proposed potential.
However, this may be about to change. In 2018, a team at Google presented a system named BERT that was able to learn to predict missing words by means of studying millions of sentences – it was as good as humans at filling in the gaps. This technology is being paired with improved speech synthesis and will allow us to have actual conversations with AI assistants. According to MIT Technology Review, “They’ll be able to deal with daily minutiae like taking meeting notes, finding information, or shopping online.” However, the responses are still scripted and AIs cannot actually comprehend sentences. The next step will see them evolve from purely logistical tools to something more closely resembling a person.
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