Ch-ch-changes… David Bowie knew a thing or two about the future, but he never wrote a song about astrochickens. And if you don’t know what astrochickens are, you really need to read our Handy Guide To Some Of The Crazy Shit Coming Your Way Shortly (Maybe)

Flying Cars

Let’s start with an oldie but a goodie. Flying cars have been a staple of science fiction for generations. They’ve also been a reality for quite some time, starting with the Taylor Aerocar, which was designed by American aeronautical engineer Moulton Taylor in the late 1940s. Six Aerocars were subsequently built over the next couple of decades, all of which were sold to private buyers.

There have been lots of designs for flying cars since then, with around 25 different prototypes getting off the ground (as in, they literally got off the ground), and the race to produce the first commercially available vehicle has quickened during the last 10 years or so. Among the most likely contenders are the Klein Vision AirCar, the Terrafugia TF-X and the ASKA A5, the last of which is the work of a Californian company and is probably half a fender ahead of the field. A big attraction at the CES 2023 tech show in Las Vegas earlier this year, the ASKA A5 is expected to launch commercially in 2026 and is available to pre-order for $789,000. Woohoo!


The Metaverse

Coming to a screen and/or headset near you shortly, the metaverse – both the concept and the name – was first described by American sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson in his cyberpunk novel ‘Snow Crash’ back in 1992.

According to the big tech companies, who are fast pumping untold billions into securing their piece of this new online world, it will be an immersive 3D virtual space in which users will be able to experience, well… probably pretty much anything they want. But while it’s being touted as a supercharged and radically revamped internet, precisely how it’s going work, what it’s going to look like, and how it’s going to be used is still anybody’s guess.

Let’s hope it won’t just be like playing ‘The Sims’ with a pair of paper 3D glasses glued to your head.


Geoengineering

The scale of the climate crisis is growing with each passing day, so we may find ourselves forced to take some drastic action to save our amazing planet.

Geoengineering, also known as climate engineering, is an umbrella term for activities such as the large-scale capture, removal and storage of carbon dioxide, placing reflectors in space to limit the amount of sunlight that reaches Earth, and using high-flying jets to create a cooling effect by spraying microscopic aerosol particles into the stratosphere. Some advocates of the latter believe we may even be able to refreeze the polar regions by spraying above the Arctic and Antarctica.

Many of the potential solutions offered by geoengineering are very divisive, not least because they could lead to dangerous unforeseen outcomes. How about if everyone everywhere just stopped burning fossil fuels immediately? The problem with that, of course, is it would involve some very wealthy and powerful people not being quite so wealthy and powerful.


Dark Factories

With more and more manufacturing processes becoming automated, we’re entering into what’s being called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0.

Robots have been used in manufacturing for many years, particularly in the car industry, but dark factories take it to another level. These are production plants that operate with no human input whatsoever. As such, there’s no need for lighting or heating. Nor indeed, tea or toilet breaks.

There are already a few almost-dark factories scattered around the world. Perhaps the most notable is a plant run by the Japanese company FANUC, which can function for around a month without any human intervention. The FANUC robots are making other robots, by the way, which is a clear indication of where this is heading.

According to the American magazine Assembly, most factories of the future will only have two non-robot employees – a guard dog and someone to feed it twice a day.


Nanobots

AI, art directed by Mark Hall

Nanotechnology – the manipulation of matter at an atomic and molecular level – has been used across a wide range of sectors over the last two decades, including health and energy. Nanorobotics is a relatively new field of nanotech and is still very much in development, so much so that true nanobots – effectively teeny-weeny robots – don’t exist yet, though it won’t be long before they do. In the meantime, simple versions of nanobots called nanomotors are being tested in clinical trials for the treatment of certain types of cancer, and these self-propelled, biodegradable devices are showing promising results.

A key issue with nanobots is making sure they can be controlled in all scenarios. This will be pretty important when there are countless billions of them running around, some of them equipped with artificial intelligence, some of them self-replicating, and some programmed to act together in swarms. You see the potential problem, right? If you’re of a nervous disposition, it’s probably best not to read Michael Crichton’s 2002 novel ‘Prey’. You should turn the page before you get to the Grey Goo section at the end of this feature too.


Flying Syringes

So now we all know what it’s like to experience a global pandemic. But are there likely to be any others over the next decade or two? Almost certainly. And could they be as deadly as Covid, or perhaps even more deadly? Quite probably.

Thank goodness for flying syringes, then. First developed and patented in the UK in the late 1990s before being trialled in Japan around a decade ago, flying syringes are mosquitoes that have been genetically modified to develop a vaccine protein in their saliva. The mosquitoes are then able to deliver the vaccine into the bloodstream of any human they bite. If you’re an anti-vaxxer, you’d better get yourself lots of those insect repellent plug-in thingys and an extemely large swatter.


Rejuvenation

Medical science is advancing at an incredible rate. Over the next decade or two, your treatment could well involve personalised drugs, robotic surgery, synthetic organs, bionic engineering and gene manipulation. You might even be able to reverse some aspects of ageing. Welcome to the weird world of rejuvenation. That is a recognised field of medicine, by the way.

We probably shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves with this one, but a research team led by Dr David Sinclair at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, has recently discovered they can rejuvenate cells in elderly mice by resetting what Sinclair likens to “software glitches”, with the animals subsequently developing sharper brains and healthier body tissue. Their experiments even cured age-related blindness in the mice. What’s more, Sinclair thinks there’s a good chance that human cells could be rejuvenated in much the same way. Fingers crossed, you’ll soon be able to chuck that hair dye in the bin, then. And if you don’t have any hair, well, happy days really are here again.


Cryonics

AI, art directed by Mark Hall

This is probably a long shot, but rejuvenation might even be able to help dead folks. Which perhaps explains the rise in popularity of cryonics, where bodies are preserved in cold storage chambers in the hope they can be reanimated further down the line. Technological advances mean that the more recently someone has died, the better chance they have of being successfully brought back to life, which is bad news for American psychology professor Dr James Bedford, the first person to be cryonically preserved. That was in 1967.

The largest cryonics facility in the world is in Scottsdale, Arizona. Founded by the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in 1972, there are currently around 200 people in cryopreservation there, including comedy writer Dick Clair, who gave Alcor his Emmy Award to look after for him until his return. The foundation’s website has a section aimed at prospective residents called “Why Scottsdale?”, which lists benefits such as “good weather” and “a low crime rate”.

Well, you wouldn’t want to come back to life to find someone had nicked your Emmy Award, would you?


Astrochickens

Not to be confused with the Iron Chicken in ‘The Clangers’, astrochickens are tiny, automated, self-replicating spacecraft designed to explore and gather material from space more quickly, cheaply and effectively than manned missions. Weighing around one kilo and bringing together lots of different technologies, they are able to land on and launch from planets using jets of chemical spray modelled on the natural defence mechanisms of bombardier beetles.

Well, that’s the theory, anyway. And while it is only a theory – the brainwave of physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson, whose other big ideas include the so-called Dyson Scenario, in which a group of immortal human beings can survive the collapse of the universe by stretching time to infinity – many space experts believe astrochicken-style probes will lead the way in our explorations beyond the solar system as the 21st century unfolds.


Gravity Trains

AI, art directed by Mark Hall

Like astrochickens, gravity trains are currently just a theory. Unlike astrochickens, they’re not likely to ever be anything more. That said, if by some chance they ever became a reality, this would be a ride you’d never forget.

A gravity train was first proposed by British scientist Robert Hooke back in the 17th century. Powered solely by the gravitational pull of Earth, it would run along straight tunnels dug between any two places on the planet. Gravity would draw the carriages downwards for the first half of the journey, accelerating the closer they got to the core, then decelerating as they got further away on the second half of the trip, balancing out so the train reaches its destination at exactly the point it runs out of energy. Unfortunately, the train and its passengers would be reduced to ash long before it got through the planet’s crust.

Setting that little problem to one side, the nifty thing is you could get from London to New York in 42 minutes. And from London to Sydney in 42 minutes. As it happens, whatever journey you make between any two places on Earth would take 42 minutes. It’s a physics thing, apparently.


The Singularity

Forget AI. It may be a hot topic today, especially the generative stuff, but that will be viewed as a mere trifle if we ever witness the development of ASI. Artificial superintelligence – as in machines that can think, understand and reason in ways that surpass even the very brightest human minds – would be a key factor in the onset of what has been called technological singularity, or simply the singularity. This is the point at which technological growth will apparently become uncontrollable, irreversible and unstoppable. Cue an existential crisis for humankind unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before.

First discussed in the 1960s, the idea of technological singularity was brought into the wider public consciousness by ‘The Singularity Is Near’, a 2005 book by American futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil, who some of you will know best for the synth company he ran with Stevie Wonder in the 1980s, predicts the singularity for 2045. And the way things are going, you wouldn’t want to bet against that.


Grey Goo

Where will it all end? Perhaps in a nuclear war, the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists having moved the hands of the world’s Doomsday Clock to 90 seconds to midnight just three months ago, largely in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Maybe in a devastating asteroid hit, with the biggest currently known threat to Earth, 101955 Bennu, on a 1-in-1,800 chance of crashing into the planet between 2178 and 2290. Then again, we might get lucky and make it through to the end of the solar system, which is 4.5 billion years away.

Another possibility is we’ll find ourselves eaten alive by grey goo. A term coined by American nanotech pioneer K Eric Drexler in his 1986 book ‘Engines Of Creation’, grey goo is a nightmare doomsday scenario in which self-replicating nanobots consume everything in the world – that’s every single atom on Earth – and the whole lot would be gone in a matter of hours. It would most likely begin with a rogue replicator, rogue either by accident or by design, and once the process has started, there would be no way of stopping it.
And the future really wasn’t meant to be like that, was it?

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