The top 10 tech and science stories of 2013
Some of these firsts are awesome intermediary steps towards the realization of an amazing end goal, and some are fully developed technologies that were launched this year and are already changing the world. The one common thread that weaves these 10 stories together is that they’re all incredibly significant to the future of technology and science and humankind.
1. The world’s first wireless brain-computer interface
While this list isn’t in any particular order, Brown University’s wireless BCI is my personal favorite of the year. A BCI, or brain-computer interface, is a device that feeds your brain activity into a computer, where it’s usually processed (to work out what you’re thinking) and acted upon. BCIs usually consist of a large mesh of electrodes — an electroencephalogram, EEG — which is then wired into a PC. This is great for lab-based testing, but not so useful if you want to use your BCI at home, out shopping, etc. The Brown University BCI, however, is implanted under the skin, and communicates with a nearby computer wirelessly.
For now, Brown’s BCI has only been tested in pigs and monkeys, but human subjects are next. The wireless BCI was implanted for over 13 months in pigs and monkeys without issue, and there’s no reason to believe that implantation in humans won’t be 100% successful. Once we can equip humans with wireless BCIs, we’re the only one step away from bionic, robotic, prosthetic limbs that can be naturally controlled by thoughts. Wireless BCIs would also for truly revolutionary applications in gaming, smart homes, driving, commerce — and, well, just about everything.
2. Western Digital releases the world’s first helium-filled hard drive
Western Digital’s first helium-filled six-terabyte hard drive is the most important breakthrough in storage this year. You can talk all you want about the sluggishness or poor reliability of spinning discs, and the awesomeness of solid-state storage, but hard drives are undoubtedly here to stay for a long time to come — and moving forward, I suspect every drive will be helium-filled, thanks to WD’s breakthrough.
Up until now, hard drives have been filled with normal air — 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 1% other gases. We have known for a long, long time (30+ years) that, if we could somehow fill hard drives with a lighter, thinner gas, it would be possible to make hard drives that, due to reduced air resistance, spin faster and consume less power. Somehow, WD (or more accurately its recently acquired Hitachi Global Storage (HGST) subsidiary) has succeeded in hermetically sealing mass-produced hard drives that are filled with helium. We’re not entirely sure how they’ve done this, as helium atoms are tiny and slip through almost any gap, but there you go.
With helium drives now a possibility, we should now expect a very rapid rush towards larger capacities, faster spindle speeds, and reduced power consumption.
3. The world’s first flying car makes a public test drive/flight
After dominating the global consciousness for more than 50 years, and occupying more than its fair share of Popular Mechanics covers, 2013 will go down in history as the first year that a legitimate, road-and-sky-worthy flying car was publicly tested: The Terrafugia Transistion.
The Transition is technically classified as a roadable aircraft, and in practice that’s exactly what it is: We’re definitely not talking about a sexy, Aston Martin-like car that sprouts wings in the middle of a high-speed chase and evades the bad guys by flying away. The Transition is basically a plane with wings that fold up, so that it’s narrow enough to use on conventional roads. It also uses conventional unleaded fuel, so you can fill up at the gas station. Its 23-gallon tank is good for around four hours of flight, at a cruising speed of 93 knots (105 mph). It only needs around 30 meters (100 feet) of runway to take off, which is rather cool.
Terrafugia has pushed back the commercial release of the Transition a few times. The expected release date now sometime in 2015 or 2016, with an expected list price of around $280,000. Terrafugia says it will follow up with the vertical-takeoff-and-landing TF-X flying car in the 2020s. While we’re still a long way away from the Blade Runner or Fifth Element vision of flying cars, we’re now a huge step closer.
4. IGZO display technology ushers in super-high-resolution displays
Other than helium-filled hard drives, the other big “first” in technology in 2013 was the commercial adoption of Sharp’s IGZO technology – first in smaller quantities in 4K Sharp and Asus desktop monitors, and then in the new iPad Air. We believe Dell’s recently released 4K desktop displays also use IGZO tech. Without going too deep into the technology — read the first link above if you want detail –IGZO allows for denser pixel densities and a big reduction in power consumption. Given how computing is incontrovertibly moving towards mobile form factors — smartphones, tablets — the move towards IGZO and its dramatic reduction in power consumption is probably the single most important breakthrough for mobile computing this year.
IGZO is also important on the desktop, where it should finally usher in high-resolution displays. Rather than being stuck at the sub-100 ppi 1920×1080 displays, 2013 finally saw the emergence of reasonably priced 24- and 32-inch 3840×2160 displays (183 and 138 PPI respectively). In 2014, as IGZO tech is deployed by other LCD panel makers, we would expect the market to be swamped by IGZO displays, with large repercussions in both the mobile and desktop markets.
5. The first 3D-printed gun with a rifled barrel, printed with a consumer-level 3D printer
Much like 2012, 2013 was very much The Year of the 3D Printer. If we were so inclined, we could quite easily dedicate an entire top 10 list to exciting 3D printing breakthroughs. If we had to choose just one, though, it would be the plastic, 3D-printed Lulz Liberator pistol. (The runner up, if you were wondering, would be the first 3D-printed human stem cells.)
While the Lulz Liberator wasn’t the first 3D-printed plastic gun (DefDist/Cody Wilson’s Liberator was the first), it is the first usable plastic gun. While the original Liberator is capable of being fired multiple times (though it has to be manually unloaded and reloaded after each shot), the barrel isn’t rifled, so it’s only accurate to a few yards. The Lulz Liberator has a rifled barrel, meaning it’s actually lethal at a reasonable range. Perhaps more importantly, though, it was printed with a LulzBot AO-101 3D printer — list price $1700, compared to the Liberator, which was printed on a $8,00+ commercial-grade Stratasys 3D printer.
The upshot of this, if you excuse the pun, is that people can now fairly easily print a lethal weapon at home. Of course, in reality, due to their poor performance and the relative ease of acquiring a real gun, it’s not like we’re suddenly going to wake up one day and find that the world has been overthrown by Liberator-wielding anarchists. It would be stupid to think that 3D-printed guns will always be wussy and naive like the Liberator, though.
If 2013 has proven anything, it’s that 3D printing is still in its infancy — and yet it’s already being used to produce guns, and rocket engine parts, and stem cells. It won’t be long before 3D printers are the equivalent of Star Trek replicators, I tell you!
6. The first road-powered electric vehicle network
My favorite transportation story of the year — better than the flying car, in my opinion — was the news that South Korea has rolled out the world’s first road-powered electric vehicle network. In the large city of Gumi, there are now electric buses that are powered by power lines under the road, which wirelessly transmit power to the buses via magnetic resonance. (This is the same tech that you use to wirelessly charge your smartphone, just on a much larger, hundreds-of-kilowatts scale.)
As you probably know, most electric vehicles (EVs) currently on the road are what’s known as plug-ins. They have on-board batteries that can only be recharged by being plugged into mains power. This is a barrier against wide-scale adoption, because there simply aren’t enough recharging stations to make EVs viable for everyday use. The other option, which I prefer, is to electrify the road system, so that cars can recharge while they drive. Road-powered EVs still have batteries, but they’re a lot smaller as they only have to power the vehicle between under-road charging points. In South Korea, electrifying around 10% of the road was enough to keep the buses powered.
Obviously it would be one heck of a job to electrify 10% of the roads in the US, UK, or any other highly populated area. But it’s not so crazy if you start on a small scale — electrifying I-95 from NYC to Boston, electrifying the I-5 in California, and so on. If we electrify the road network, we could also take the opportunity to lay down some other technology at the same time, too — such as the necessary gadgets and networking to turn cars into highly efficient, dense, and safe caravans of autonomous, mesh-networked “railroad” cars.
7. Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance” measured
As you may have heard before, there is such thing as a “universal speed limit” — a speed that, given our current theory of how the universe came to be and continues to exist, cannot be exceeded under any circumstances. The other name for this speed limit is the speed of light in a vacuum, which is 299,792,458 meters –or 186,000 miles — per second. In theory, according special relativity, this is the maximum speed that matter, energy, and information can travel. This is why scientists are so perturbed by quantum entanglement, which seems to allow two particles to communicate instantly, over an infinite distance.
This year, some Chinese physicists finally measured the speed at which entangled particles communicate (or “spooky action at a distance” as Einstein called it), and found it to be at least four orders of magnitude faster than light. Their equipment and methodology doesn’t allow for an exact figure, but even at the low end (10,000 times faster), we’re talking about quantum entanglement traveling at three trillion meters per second.
This is a mind-boggling (and theoretically impossible) speed, but it’s in line with (what appears to be) the instantaneous communication between entangled particles. In reality, the speed is probably even faster, too, but we just can’t measure it accurately yet. Now we just need to find a way of actually transferring information via quantum entanglement, so that we can reduce network latency to zero — useful for online gaming, but also for communicating between planets, when we eventually colonize space…
8. The first imaging of thoughts as the occur inside a living brain
Other than the wireless BCI, my favorite neuroscience breakthrough of the year was the first ever imaging of thoughts inside a brain. In the video above, the colorful block at the bottom of the image is a zebrafish’s brain. The bright spot that moves around the top half of the image is a single-celled paramecium (similar to the amoeba). The bright spot at the bottom of the image, inside the brain, is the fish’s thoughts. Yes, the fish’s thoughts seem to almost perfectly mirror the movement of the paramecium.
Neuroscientists love the zebrafish because its brain is relatively simple (“only” 300,000 neurons), and — this is the important bit — because they’re completely transparent when they’re still young. In this case, some Japanese researchers genetically modified a zebrafish so that its optic tectum, the part of the brain that integrates visual data, releases fluorescent molecules — which, because the skin is transparent, can then be imaged. In the video above, we are seeing the firing of neurons as the optic nerve (on the opposite side of the brain!) registers the moving paramecium, and then the cascade of other neurons in the brain as the fish thinks about how yummy it would be to eat that tasty morsel.
This is a huge step towards understanding what actually happens inside a living brain. While we now have a pretty good idea of the form that a brain takes, and the chemical processes by which neurons communicate, we still have no idea how the form creates function. It is hoped that, if we can complete a connectome of the human brain – a complete map of how each part of the brain is linked together — we’ll be able to better infer how the human brain processes data. At some point, we might eventually be able to correlate specific patterns of brain activity with certain thoughts or ideas, but — because humans don’t have transparent skulls — it’s going to be a long, long time until that happens. Seeing fish thoughts is a very important first step, though.
For another cool neuroscience story, read about how MIT successfully implanted false memories in a brain, possibly explaining why we remember things that never happened.
9. The first thorium nuclear reactor turns on
The nuclear power industry, due to a myriad of safety and political concerns, moves at a depressingly slow pace — and oftentimes, following disasters such as Fukushima, nuclear power actually moves backwards, with countries canning future nuclear developments due to political pressure. This year, though, nuclear power took a huge leap forward with the switching on of the world’s first thorium-powered nuclear reactor.
With conventional nuclear reactors, the fuel is nearly always enriched uranium. The enriched uranium fuel cycle produces a lot of heat, but it has two huge downsides: nuclear proliferation (enriched uranium falling into the wrong hands and getting turned into a bomb), and it produces plutonium. Plutonium is incredibly nasty stuff that remains radioactive for thousands of years. (Plutonium is the reason that nuclear waste dumping/storage is such a hot topic.)
A very good alternative to uranium fuel, however, is thorium-MOX (mixed-oxide) — 90% thorium and 10% plutonium oxide. The fuel cycle of thorium-MOX is much cleaner, as it doesn’t produce plutonium — rather, it actually consumes plutonium, reducing the world’s (very large) supply of the nasty stuff. The world has a very large supply of thorium, too, and it’s more evenly distributed than uranium. Thorium-MOX is an all-round excellent choice for future nuclear reactors.
For now, though, due to the trepidation in which we approach all things nuclear, we need to do more testing to fully understand the thorium fuel cycle. That’s the purpose of the thorium nuclear power test site, built by Thor Energy in Norway. After running for five years, the thorium rods will be withdrawn and scientists will analyze what’s left, to see if thorium-MOX really is as ideal as it seems. If all goes well, maybe we’ll see some commercial thorium reactors in 10 to 20 years. (See, I told you that nuclear power moves depressingly slowly!)
For another fun, thorium-related story, cold fusion also (reportedly) had a breakthrough in 2013. Take that with a pinch of salt, though, as it still hasn’t been 100% verified.
10. The first bionic eye receives a firmware update to increase its capabilities
Our final story of the year is the portentous story of the bionic eye that was upgraded, via a firmware update, to enable color vision and improve its resolution. This is a delicious hint of what the future will be like, when implants — both medical and elective — are commonplace.
In this case, Second Sight — the first bionic eye (retinal prosthesis) maker to receive FDA approval in the US — upgraded the software of its Argus II implant to improve its resolution, focus, and zooming. Despite only being originally designed to deliver black and white vision, the company also managed to add the perception of color — which is particularly awesome when you remember that the Argus II is implanted in patients who have lost the cells that perceive color (retinitis pigmentosa). It turns out that, by programming the Argus II to stimulate the optic nerve with specific frequencies and timings, patients perceive colors.
For now, implants like the Argus II are purely for patients afflicted by debilitating diseases — but one day, when the technology eventually reaches the point where it provides better-than-human capabilities, the surgery will become elective. For now, in 2013, we are looking at prosthetic arms and eyes and brains that are orders of magnitude less flexible and powerful than their flesh-and-blood counterparts. But if technology has taught us anything, it’s that Moore’s law eats orders of magnitude for breakfast. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in 10 or 15 years, you are reading ExtremeTech with bionic eyes.