As 2014 comes to a close, it's time to reflect on the most futuristic breakthroughs and developments of the past year. This year's crop features a slew of incredible technological, scientific, and social achievements, from mind-to-mind communication to self-guiding sniper bullets. Here are 15 predictions that came true in 2014.
For the first time ever, two humans exchanged thoughts via mind-to-mind communication.
Remarkably, the system is completely non-invasive. By using internet-linked electroencephalogram (EEG) and robot-assisted image-guided transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) technologies, an international team of researchers were able to get two subjects — one in India and one in France — to mentally transmit the words "hola" and "ciao." It's an important proof of concept for furthering the development of tech-enabled telepathy. Image: Carles Grau et al/Plos.
And in a similar breakthrough, a different team developed a system that allowed a human subject to control the movements of another person. The University of Washington researchers showcased the technology by having participants collaborate on a computer game where a "sender" sent mental instructions to a "receiver" to control their hand movements.
In what's being seen as a precursor to a Star Trek-like replicator, astronauts aboard the ISS used their 3D printer to manufacture a socket wrench. Remarkably, the 20-part wrench was designed on Earth and emailed to astronaut Barry Wilmore who ran it through the printer. It's a prime example of how 3D printing is poised to change space travel, allowing astronauts to produce equipment on demand and in emergency situations. Image: NASA.
It's still in the trial stage, but this a remarkable achievement nonetheless. Surgeons at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital are using suspended animation — or what they call emergency preservation and resuscitation — to dramatically cool down trauma victims to keep them alive during critical operations.
The technique, which is only being used on patients who would otherwise be expected to die, involves internal rather than external cooling. The patient's blood is replaced with a cold saline solution, which slows down the body's metabolic functions and need for oxygen. Image: Prometheus.
The device, called a High Energy Laser (HEL) weapon, was fitted to the USS Ponce, which is currently on exercises in the Persian Gulf.
It's still at the prototype stage, but it's being fielded to evaluate its capabilities in a real-world environment where it has already shown its effectiveness in destroying two boats and a drone. Image: U.S. Navy.
Researchers at the OpenWorm project are trying to create a digital version of an actual nemotode worm in a computer. They're not quite there yet, but that didn't stop team member Timothy Busbice from creating software that mimics the natural processes of the worm's neural networks — and then putting that knowledge in a LEGO Mindstorms EV3 robot.
"My research takes the way the worm's brain is wired and extends it to a robot for sensory input and motor output," Buspice told Gizmodo. "What we found is that rather than just random, crazy movements by the robot, it actually responded to its environment in the same manner as the biological worm."
Mathematician Steven Strogatz once predicted that computer-assisted solutions to math problems will eventually extend beyond human comprehension. His prediction appears to have finally come true.
Earlier this year, a computer solved the longstanding Erdős discrepancy problem. Unfortunately, human mathematicians aren't entirely sure about the solution because it's as long as all of Wikipedia's pages combined.
In what was the year's biggest artificial life breakthrough, researchers from New York University Langone Medical Center reconstructed a synthetic and fully functional yeast chromosome. Incredibly, they were also able to insert their own special additions to the chromosome, including a chemical switch that allows scientists to "scramble" it into thousands of different variations to make subsequent gene editing even easier. It's an important proof of concept that could lead to designer organisms and artificial chromosomes in humans.
Some say it was a media stunt, but it might be the start of a larger trend: Hong Kong-based Deep Knowledge ventures appointed a machine learning program, called VITAL, to its board of directors. It's said to be an "equal member" that will uncover trends "not immediately obvious to humans" in order to make investment recommendations. The system will pour over massive data sets, apply machine learning, and then predict which life sciences companies are the best investments.
And in related news, a robot "journalist" was the first to report on the Los Angeles Earthquake.
Les Baugh became the first human to ever receive two shoulder-level thought-controlled prosthetic arms. It's not permanent, but the researchers at Johns Hopkins are hoping that the arms will eventually become a permanent add-on.
In other major cybernetic breakthroughs, researchers created an artificial hand that feels, and the first mind-controlled prosthetic hand with 10 degrees of freedom. Also, these wearable limbs took us a step closer to creating Doctor Octopus.
We've seen so-called invisibility cloaks before, but nothing quite like this one.
Researchers at the University of Rochester developed a cheap and surprisingly effective cloaking device that's being heralded as the first to perform 3D, continuously multidirectional cloaking in the visible spectrum of light. To do it, they combined four standard optical lenses that keeps an object hidden — even as the viewer moves side to side. The system could eventually be used to eliminate blind spots in vehicles or let surgeons see through their hands during surgery. Photo credit: J. Adam Fenster / University of Rochester.
Vancouver's school board introduced the gender neutral pronouns "xe," "xem," and "xyr," in an effort to accommodate students for whom gender-specific pronouns doesn't fit or is considered inappropriate. The move is similar to measures enacted in Sweden and Germany.
In an important precedent that could influence law elsewhere, a 29-year-old Sumatran orangutan held at an Argentinian zoo was granted the right of habeas corpus, or bodily autonomy. As noted by AFADA lawyer Paul Buompadre, "This opens the way not only for other Great Apes, but also for other sentient beings which are unfairly and arbitrarily deprived of their liberty in zoos, circuses, water parks and scientific laboratories." Sandra will be released from the zoo and transfered to a sanctuary.
The DARPA-funded system, called EXACTO, features a .50-caliber sniper round that can be optically guided to a target with a laser. Incredibly, the bullet can hit a target up to 1.2 miles (1.9 km) away.
The technology was developed by Teledyne Scientific and Imaging, who disclosed virtually no information as to how the bullet maneuvers mid-trajectory.
It all started because of a very silly movie, but the consequences — and potential implications — are anything but. The Sony Hacks were directly linked to North Korea (an accusation that's still being contested), resulting in the temporary cancellation of The Interview's theatrical release. Shortly afterward, North Korea's entire Internet was taken down, allegedly by the United States. The world thus caught its first glimpse of what a cyber war might actually look like.
We've sent robotic probes to planets, but we've never done anything quite like this before.
Philae's harrowing landing on Comet 67P in early November wasn't perfect, but the mission is being hailed as a wild success. In addition to some incredible images, we're learning about organic compounds on the comet and weird water that's potentially upending our theories of where our oceans came from. Image: ESA.