Yesterday we told you about the biggest scientific breakthroughs of 2012. But now we turn our attention to those developments that make us realize just how futuristic things are quickly becoming.
And the past year provided no shortage of futureshock. We watched a cyborg compete at the Olympic Games, and marveled at the news that NASA was actually working on a faster-than-light warp drive. It was also a year that featured the planet's first superstorm, the development of an artificial retina — and primates who had their intelligence enhanced with a chip. Here are 16 predictions that came true in 2012.
For the first time ever in Olympic history, a double-amputee raced alongside able-bodied athletes. Nicknamed "Blade Runner," South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius's remarkable achievement raised as much enthusiasm as it did concern — some observers felt that his advanced prosthetic "Cheetahs" gave him an unfair advantage over the other athletes. But while Pistorius failed to medal, his remarkable achievement signified the dawn of the cyborg age.
Speaking at the 100 Year Starship 2012 Public Symposium earlier this year, physicist Harold White stunned the aeronautics world when he announced that he and his team at NASA had begun work on the development of a faster-than-light warp drive. His proposed design, an ingenious re-imagining of an Alcubierre Drive, may eventually result in an engine that can transport a spacecraft to the nearest star in a matter of weeks — and all without violating Einstein's law of relativity. Though still in the proof-of-concept phase, White and his colleagues are trying to turn theory into practice — and potentially change the nature of space travel as we know it.
Back in September, scientists demonstrated that a brain implant could improve thinking ability in primates — and by a factor of 10 percent. By implanting an electrode array into the cerebral cortex of monkeys, researchers were able to restore — and even improve — their decision-making abilities. The implications for possible therapies are far-reaching, including potential treatments for cognitive disorders and brain injuries. And it also means the era of animal uplifting has begun.
Back in 1999, Art Bell and Whitley Strieber published a book titled The Coming Global Superstorm. It predicted that global warming would eventually result in sudden and catastrophic climatic effects — including the onset of unusually large storms. Now, 13 years later — although some are still loathe to admit it — the Atlantic Ocean experienced its first bona fide superstorm. Sandy was a colossal hurricane that occupied a space measuring 1.8 million square miles (4.6 million square kilometers), and stretched from the Mid-Atlantic to the Ohio Valley, and into Canada and New England. It may have been the first, but it certainly won't be the last.
Steve Mann, the "father of wearable computing," was physically assaulted while visiting a McDonalds in Paris, France. The Canadian university professor was at the restaurant with his family when three different McDonalds employees took exception to his "Digital Eye Glass" device and attempted to forcibly remove it from his head. Mann was then physically removed from the store by the employees, along with having his support documentation destroyed. It was the first ever recorded assault of a person instigated by the prominent display of a Google Glass-like wearable computer.
Speaking of Google Glass — this was the year that augmented reality finally hit the big time. Back in April, Google unveiled preliminary designs and a short concept piece showcasing the technology — an initiative to create smart shades straight out of Vernon Vinge's Rainbows End or Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson's Transmetropolitan. Soon thereafter, beta testers could be seen cruising the streets of California with their sweet wearable devices.
Boston Dynamics, along with funding from DARPA's Maximum Mobility Program, significantly revved up their Cheetah Robot this year. The previous iteration ran at a speed of 18 mph (29 kph), but the new version clocked upwards of 28.8 mph (46.3 kph) — demolishing its previous record, and even surpassing the fasted recorded human speed on Earth. Not content to stop there, Boston Dynamics also upgraded their robotic pack mule (a.k.a. "Big Dog") so that it can respond to vocal commands.
Early on the morning of October 10, SpaceX's supply-hauling Dragon capsule was successfully captured by astronauts aboard the International Space Station, marking the first-ever commercial cargo delivery to the manned space outpost. With 11 resupply missions remaining in the SpaceX/NASA contract, it seems the private company's billion-dollar delivery deal with The Agency is off to a good start — as is the prospect for commercial space flight in general.
If anyone ever doubted that electric cars were the future, those concerns were officially laid to rest in 2012. Tesla's luxury Sedan, the Model S, captured one of the auto industry's most prestigious awards by taking home Motor Trend's Car of the Year honors. It marked the first time that an electric car has taken the top prize — a vehicle that doesn't run on gas or have an internal combustion engine.
Back in 2010, neuroscientists confirmed that it was possible to communicate with some patients locked in a vegetative state by using an fMRI scanner. Though limited, the breakthrough suggested that more meaningful dialogue with patients in a coma could someday be possible. And now, two years later, it finally happened. A Canadian man in a vegetative state used his thoughts to tell scientists that he is not in any pain, marking the first time a patient in such a condition has relayed information relevant to their care.
This wasn't how it was supposed to play out, but a massive and illegal geoengineering project was detected off Canada's west coast in October — the product of a "rogue geohacker" named Russ George. Backed by a private company, the U.S. businessman unilaterally conducted the world's most significant geoengineering project to date by dumping around 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean, a technique known as ocean fertilization. The experiment, which is in violation of two United Nations moratoria, outraged environmental, legal, and civic groups.
The rise of telecommuting robots has increasingly allowed stay-at-home workers to create a virtual presence at their remote workplaces. It now appears, however, that working professionals aren't the only ones taking advantage of telepresence technologies: A six-year old boy with severe allergies from Seneca Falls, NY, is using a VGo robot to attend school — and it's an experiment that appears to be working. The technology is quickly attracting the attention of other educators, including districts in Colorado, Arkansas, and Pittsburgh. It may only be a matter of time before VGo and other telepresence robots will make their way into other schools.
Researchers made significant improvements to BrainGate this year — a brain-machine interface that allows users to control an external device with their minds. Cathy Hutchinson, who has been paralyzed from the neck down for 15 years, was able to drink her morning coffee by controlling a robotic arm using only her mind. Hutchinson is one of two quadriplegic patients — both of them stroke victims — who have learned to control the device by means of the BrainGate neural implant. It's the first published demonstration that humans with severe brain injuries can control a sophisticated prosthetic arm with such a system.
Slowly but surely we're entering into the era of the driverless car. 2012 marked an important year as three states made autonomous vehicles legal, including California, Nevada, and Florida. Upon signing the bill into law in California, Governor Jerry Brown said they're "turning today's science fiction into tomorrow's reality." Self-driving cars, once perfected and produced en masse, will help with traffic congestion and significantly reduce the chance of auto accidents through the use of GPS, radar, and other technologies.
Two British men who were completely blind for years were able to regain some of their vision after undergoing surgery to fit eye implants. The pioneering treatment is at an early stage of development, but it marks an important step forward in an effort to help those who have lost their sight from a condition known as retinitis pigmentosa. And in related news, other researchers successfully streamed Braille patterns directly onto a blind person's retina, allowing him to read letters and words visually, with almost 90% accuracy. Developed by researchers at Second Sight, the headset-like device is set to revolutionize the way degenerative eye diseases are treated.
Stanford researchers created the first complete computational model of an actual organism — Mycoplasma genitalia, a sexually transmitted disease and the world's smallest free-living bacteria at 525 genes. The breakthrough represented a significant step forward in the field of artificial life - and the promise of developing entirely new organisms. Through future work, scientists may be able to develop new approaches for the diagnosis and treatment of disease — including the creation of yeast or bacteria designed to mass-produce pharmaceuticals — and to create personalized medicine. And in other computer news, researchers successfully simulated a nuclear explosion down to the molecular level.
Images: Pistorius via Startribune, uplift via, Steve Mann, SpaceX, MotorAuthority, geoengineering via Giovanni/Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center/NASA, VGo robot via Derek Gee/Buffalo News, VGo, self-driving car, artificial organism, coma and artificial retina via BBC.