As we come to the end of the year, we should take a moment to appreciate some of the stunning technological developments of 2013, each of which has made science fiction seem a little more like concrete fact. After all, we live in a world of Chinese lunar rovers, increasingly viable electric cars, sophisticated motion-sensing gaming systems, self-healing flexible phones, 10-inch-tall personal supercomputers, and private spaceflight companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic.
Here are 12 innovations that brought the future home in 2013.
1. Wearable Technology
While it may look utterly obnoxious, there’s no denying that Google Glass is a particularly futuristic technological innovation. The slim, hands-free computer — essentially a smartphone that can be controlled through gestures and voice commands — was shipped to developers and other early adopters (I’m sorry, “explorers”) earlier this year, and has been joined in the wearable marketplace by less-obtrusive smartwatches from Sony, Samsung, and Pebble. People who aren’t interested in shooting point-of-view video or talking to their wrist have the option of tracking their daily physical activity and even sleep patterns using devices like the Fitbit Flex and Nike’s FuelBand SE, which use technological innovations to track biological needs. Even regular attire has become more functional, from clothing that can charge your electronic devices, to the stylish cowl that transforms into a helmet-shaped airbag for bikers.
2. Elon Musk's Hyperloop
In August, SpaceX, PayPal, and Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk announced his latest venture: the creation of a blisteringly fast form of travel that could cut the 10-hour drive between San Francisco and Los Angeles down to a half-hour trip. Musk’s hyperloop system seats passengers in pods before shooting them through metal cylinders — think of it as a mass-transit version of Futurama’s Tube Transport System. The hyperloop tubes will be reduced to a near vacuum, and the pods floated over a thin sheet of air, reducing wind resistance and friction. Musk hopes that, as a result, his technology will be crash-free, allow travel speeds of over 750 miles per hour, and cause passengers to experience less gravitational pull than they do during a jet’s liftoff. If Musk’s hyperloop is successful, we can only hope he’ll tackle the outstanding issue of teleportation next.
3. Oculus Rift
We may not have jetpacks, teleportation, or flying cars, but thanks to Oculus VR, one of the futuristic technologies that popular culture promised us is finally coming to fruition.
An HD version of the company’s immersive virtual-reality headset debuted at E3 in June and a developer version was shipped out earlier this year, resulting in a slew of hilarious YouTube reaction videos in which users lurch around on terrifying virtual roller coasters and flinch away from the gaping maws of non-existent sharks.
While Oculus Rift won’t work with consoles anytime soon, the Oculus team has been bolstered by the support of gaming industry luminaries, including its CTO, id Software cofounder John Carmack. The company recently received $75 million in venture capital funding, bringing us one step closer to the William Gibson-esque virtual landscape we’ve always desired.
4. The NSA’s Utah Data Center
Given the continuing revelations about the NSA’s Orwellian surveillance — from its metadata collection, to its collaboration with phone companies, to its monitoring of porn sites and online games — the agency’s new Utah Data Center may not be a force for good. Even so, the sheer scale of the NSA’s $2 billion clandestine facility, which was completed in late 2013, makes it a dystopian technological wonder.
According to Wired, the self-sustaining data center contains 100,000 square feet of space for servers and 900,000 square feet of offices for “technical support and administration.” The full extent of the facility’s storage is unclear, but whistleblower William Binney estimated that it’s on the scale of zettabytes, enough to store 36,000,000 years of HD video — or every recordable conversation the NSA can get its hands on, as the case may be.
There’s no word yet on whether, or where, precogs’ bathtubs will be placed.
Electrical engineer Rob Reinhart has created a low-cost food substitute that can replace entire meals, and which he’s been living on since mid-January. Reinhart promises that Soylent, the beverage in question, is nutritionally complete, even though it lacks both flavoring and, thankfully, the key ingredient of its science-fiction namesake.
Soylent had a successful crowdfunding campaign earlier this year, and has now raised $1.5 million in venture capital funding. If the beverage makes its way through clinical trials, it could offer us almost all of the convenience of Jetsons-style capsule meals, and do so with none of the human rights complaints surrounding Nutriloaf.
If nothing else, Soylent will provide a nutritional alternative to face-hugging algae farms.
6. Human Exoskeletons
Argo Medical Technologies’ ReWalk and Ekso’s bionic suit may not look quite as impressive as Gundam-style mechas, but they serve an even more important purpose: enabling people with limited mobility and spinal cord injuries to walk around on their own two legs.
The technological feat reduces many of the health effects and stigmas associated with wheelchair use, and allows people to increase their strength and take better advantage of everyday environments.
It also results in poignant videos like the one above, in which the New York Times chronicles the recovery of architect Robert Woo, who was injured in a tragic crane collapse in 2007. Unlike their anime counterparts, the bionic exoskeletons aren’t fitted with missiles and lasers. However, such attachments may be in the works.
It’s not always easy to get worked up about materials science, but certain products are aided by the fact that they make for stunning YouTube videos.
Such is the case with Rustoleum’s NeverWet, a superhydrophobic coating that became available for purchase earlier this year. NeverWet defies our deep-seated expectations about how liquids act, has endless waterproofing applications, and its nanotechnology enables some decidedly clever street art.
8. Manmade Flesh
Never has organ harvesting been so humane. We’ve had a gun that can spray skin cells on burn victims for several years now, but 2013 saw the advent of beating heart tissue grown directly from human stem cells. Princeton scientists made a functional human ear out of bovine cells, Harvard grew a windpipe that was implanted into a toddler, and UK researchers are working on 3-D printed synthetic skin.
And petri-dish flesh isn’t just headed to hospitals. In August, Sergey Brin-funded engineer Mark Post shared his lab-grown beef with the public.
9. Self-Driving Cars and 3-D Printed Guns
They may not seem to have a lot in common, but in 2013, both self-driving cars and 3-D printed guns managed to change our legislative landscape, despite the fact that neither device has been widely produced or adopted. Google’s autonomous vehicles are now considered roadworthy in three American states — Florida, Nevada, and California — and this year, the United Kingdom moved toward not just legalizing similar cars, but promoting them for local use. Meanwhile, concerns about home-printed plastic firearms led Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y) to support new federal legislation against the difficult-to-detect weapons.
10. Bionic Eyes
Electronic vision isn’t just for replicants anymore. In March, the FDA approved the Argus II, a retinal implant that pairs with a glasses-mounted camera to bring sight to people suffering from retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary form of blindness. Created by a team led by MacArthur genius Sheila Nirenberg, the glasses don’t just help users recognize edges and movement, but even enable the recognition of large text, bringing greater independence to vision-impaired individuals. Additional retinal and brain implants are in the works, leading to a world in which newly sighted cyborgs can do much more than listen to colors or record video.
11. Humanoid Military Robots
There’s been a lot of hype surrounding robotics manufacturer Boston Dynamics lately, thanks to their recent acquisition by Google. This week, the company’s bipedal humanoid ATLAS robot will be put to the test by the military research agency DARPA, which is hosting public trials of the machine at a speedway in Homestead, Florida. Seventeen teams will compete in two days of trials, in which robots will be asked to complete eight simple tasks, like turning a valve or climbing a ladder, with minimal instruction. Eight finalists will spend the next year refining their programming and engineering, and demonstrate the robot’s abilities in a simulated disaster-relief scenario. The stated hope is that, one day, robots may be able to help remediate hazardous sites like the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant — or, you know, serve as all-terrain terminators. One or the other.
12. Unmanned Drones
From their potential use in Amazon and DHL’s delivery services, to striking homemade aerial films, to the United States’ regime of targeted killings in Pakistan and Yemen, unmanned drones have increasingly become a fact of life. Quadricopters are now widely commercially available, and governments can choose from an increasing number of larger machines for surveillance and remote attacks. The deft devices have raised a number of questions, from the ethics of unmanned drone strikes, to how we can best regulate our cluttered air space. The one thing that appears to be certain is that drones are here to stay.