Sightlines

Innovations: Why the Future Might Look A Lot Like ‘Minority Report’

Envision a colleague positioning papers on a digital bulletin board — but without actually touching anything. The co-worker wears a glove and, by merely raising and moving her hand, arranges radiant video images that appear on a transparent screen before her. She points left, and an image slides that way; she pulls her hand toward ...

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Envision a colleague positioning papers on a digital bulletin board — but without actually touching anything. The co-worker wears a glove and, by merely raising and moving her hand, arranges radiant video images that appear on a transparent screen before her. She points left, and an image slides that way; she pulls her hand toward her, and an image enlarges, as if she had applied a zoom function. While this seems like a scene straight out of the 2002 Tom Cruise blockbuster Minority Report, it isn’t. The technology is known as “human-machine interface,” and it’s real.

In December 2015, engineers at the Polytechnic University of Turin and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology introduced “GoldFinger,” a prototype glove that converts the mechanical movements of a person’s fingers and hands into electrical power. (The invention’s name is not related to the titular villain of the 1964 James Bond film.) With a motion as small as opening and closing a loose fist, the wearer creates an electrical charge that accumulates in GoldFinger’s nylon fabric; the resulting energy runs through metallic wires sewn into the glove to power LED lights on a fingertip. The user can use gestures to control interactive displays that respond to the lights, potentially from several feet away.

Because GoldFinger is lightweight, flexible, and doesn’t need to be plugged into an external power source, it can be carried easily (in a pocket, for instance). The researchers say a commercial design is possible in the near future, and they hope it will have various uses: a pilot swiping a hand to bring essential information about a flight onto a cockpit windshield, or a surgeon donning GoldFinger to conduct robotic surgery on a patient’s brain.

It may even become possible to emulate Tom Cruise: A police officer could use GoldFinger and a compatible computer to quickly sift through a city’s security camera feeds. Hopefully, though, Minority Report won’t come to life entirely, and gloved cops will be hunting down real suspects — not people they predict will commit crimes in the future.

How to be Human

The ultimate endgame of artificial intelligence (AI) research is to develop a system that thinks and behaves like a human. Yet the hardware currently available to build robots (wires, chips, and other components) can’t modify themselves; they’re static materials, not organisms. This hampers the ability of intelligent machines to learn, adapt, and utilize information efficiently.

Taking a lesson from nature, a team of Russian and Italian researchers has developed the first-ever organic resistors — the parts of an electrical system that control energy output — which could be used to build machine components that collect information quickly and prioritize it based on memorized responses, just like human neurons do. These “memristors,” made of plastic polyaniline, could help AI systems advance rapidly. As an added bonus, they’re made from inexpensive materials. Robots, in other words, aren’t just going organic; they’re doing it on a budget.

Undetectable Flying Objects

Radar works by emitting electromagnetic waves, then using the ones that bounce back after hitting an object to pinpoint location and track movements. Stealth technology scrambles this process with what’s known as “destructive interference”: Added layers of solid material amplify the waves that reach an airplane or drone, for example, so that they strike and cancel each other out, leaving radar screens empty.

Interference isn’t fail-safe, however. Sometimes, thanks to simple physics, if waves hit an object’s reinforced exterior at just the right point and time, they ricochet back anyway. The only true way to be sneaky is to trap radar signals and never let them go.

Scientists from the United States and Russia have created a new material capable of absorbing more than 99.99 percent of electromagnetic radiation. This polarized crystal, made of hexagonal boron nitride, has a unique lattice structure that captures waves and prevents refraction. If researchers figure out how to turn the material into a solid, thin coating, it could be put to military use. Although, if it’s successful, we may never know when the furtive technology takes to the skies.

Robo-Chutes

When the iPhone’s Maps app or a Garmin car system goes haywire, sending a user off course, it’s frustrating but probably not deadly. Not so for the U.S. Army. Its Joint Precision Airdrop System (JPADS) parachutes critical supplies to deployed troops so that truck convoys aren’t sent through dangerous environments. But the GPS mechanism that guides it is prone to error — sometimes satellites aren’t where they’re supposed to be, for instance — which means food, ammunition, or medical supplies can wind up miles from their targets. Worse, the system isn’t secure, leaving it vulnerable to hacking. So the Army is testing a new JPADS that doesn’t need GPS at all. Instead, cargo is dropped from a plane flying 25,000 feet in the air and up to 20 miles away from a target, more than seven miles farther than previous models can handle. Equipped with smart optical sensors that collect and analyze visual information in conjunction with commercial satellite imagery, parachutes steer packages automatically toward a pre-programmed destination, giving the phrase “on demand” a new military meaning.

24,551

That’s the total electrical capacity, in megawatts, of the world’s 49 heavy-water nuclear plants. Historically, the methods used to produce heavy water have consumed large amounts of energy. But scientists at the University of Manchester recently created a graphene filter capable of separating out deuterium from hydrogen, which will simplify the production of heavy water — possibly making the process more energy efficient.

 

Neel V. Patel is a freelance journalist based in New York.

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