Of all the stories I’ve covered and ideas I’ve written about a handful stand out to me as ones that I’ve personally rooted for.  These are the innovations and inventions that I can’t wait to use myself, the ones that I truly think would make my own life better.  Graphene, the wonder material, was the first.  Followed closely by Google Glass before it went by the wayside.  Now, the number one object of my affection is Elon Musk’s pipe dream the Hyperloop.

We’re still probably at least 3-5 years away from realizing this dream but an important first step was just taken by Hyperloop One as they just announced their first successful full system test.

As Wired puts it:

“Your dream of one day zipping from one city to another in a pod in a pneumatic tube just took one more step toward reality. Hyperloop One announced Wednesday that it successfully tested a full hyperloop.

The step into the future occurred in May at the company’s Nevada test track, where engineers watched a magnetically levitating test sled fire through a tube in near-vacuum, reaching 70 mph in just over five seconds.

That is but a fraction of the 700 mph or so Hyperloop One promises, but put that aside for now. What matters here is all the elements required to make hyperloop work, worked: propulsion, braking, and the levitation and vacuum systems that all but eliminate friction and air resistance so that pod shoots through the tube at maximum speed with minimal energy.”

Clearly a lot more work still needs to be done before we’re bouncing around from city to city at high speeds.  But considering all the legal wrangling and in-fighting that has occurred up to this point it’s encouraging to know that real progress is being made.  Hopefully, it will be full speed ahead from now on.

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Is the Hyperloop the Greatest Idea Ever?

When I was in college the University gym featured a really cool exercise bike that you could ride while watching a screen that depicted a series of hills.  The scenery that scrolled past you would match the intensity of the interval workout that the bike was set to.  It was meant to distract you from the tedious act of having to peddle over and over mindlessly.  And it worked.  Sort of.

Flash Forward fifteen years and the exercise bike of the future has finally arrived thanks to the VZ Sensor, a tiny attachment that fastens to any exercise bike, turning into a virtual reality cardio gym.

As VR Scout reports, “The $100 device is compatible with most mainstream headsets including the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and PSVR, with support for mobile VR options such as Samsung’s Gear VR and Google DayDream on the way.”

So what kind of VR experiences are we talking about?!

According to VR Scout the headset, “features an array of fitness-based experiences such as lassoing bandits atop a galloping horse, cutting tight corners in an Indy race car and flying through the clouds on a mystical Pegasus…”

The only downside to the device is that you have to hold a controller while peddling which could be problematic for some people.  There is, however, a more expensive option, running $400, that comes with a more complete set-up.  Either way, it’s clear that the VZ Sensor is a vast improvement over the fake rolling hills of my youth.

Is the VR Sensor the Greatest Idea Ever?

In The Inevitable: Understanding the Twelve Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly talks about how difficult it is to predict the future thirty years from now.  The technologies that exist then would be unfathomable to our present day selves just like how the Internet and the technology of today was impossible to predict for people thirty years ago.  The opposite is also true.  The leading technologies of today will seem antiquated to the people living in the future.  They’ll wonder how we ever tolerated traveling by car from New York to Boston in four hours when they can make the trek in a Hyperloop pod in twenty minutes, the same way we now wonder how anyone could have ever tolerated dialing in a modem to use America Online when we can access the Internet on our phones in seconds.

Take search engines for example.  The Google machine can do some pretty remarkable things, answering every question we can think of within fractions of a second.  But it will seem downright quaint to the people living in 2050.  As Kelly points out, today’s search engines only index about 10-20% of the web, barely scratching the surface of what exists.  Try googling yourself.  Individual Facebook comments, tweets, and Instagram posts don’t show up.  Neither does content hidden within a YouTube video.  The search engine of the future would change all that.  It would search everything.

Imagine, if you will, an epic search engine.  One that is capable of conducting deep searches throughout the entirety of the Internet.  Webpages would be captured, yes.  But, also all of the content on them.  Even comments.  Videos would be searchable too.  Databases.  Archives.  Everything and anything.  Even physical items would be searchable so long as they were outfitted with sensors and hooked up to the Internet of Things.  Perhaps, one day, even the Dark Web could be crawled by a search engine.  Better yet, maybe it would be possible to search not just current version of web pages but all prior versions as well.

Having such capability would sure make life easier.  You could find specific conversations that you’ve had, emails that you’ve sent, status updates that you’ve posted.  You’d have total recall.  You might even be able to find where you put your keys.

But, then again, an epic search engine may never come to fruition.  Maybe our future selves will bypass a powerful search engine all together in favor of a global hive mind or some other new technology that we can’t even imagine yet.  At this point it’s impossible to say what impossibilities will become possible in the future.  All we know for sure is that things will be drastically different.

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Will we have an even better search engine in the future?

Yesterday was Amazon Prime Day, a day of steep discounts across all product categories on Amazon’s website as a way of thanking their loyal Prime members and wooing new ones.  It’s Amazon’s rift on Alibaba’s wildly successful Singles Day and it’s birthed a new tradition that isn’t likely to stop anytime soon.

As millions of orders get fulfilled its easy to wonder how it all happens.  Amazon’s supply chain efficiencies have long been marveled at from the use of robotics in their fulfillment centers to their desire to start delivering packages via drone.  But even still, we’re talking about millions upon millions of orders in a single day.  Not even Santa Clause has to deliver that many packages in that short of a time.  How could they pull it off?  And more importantly, how can they get even more efficient at delivering packages?

Well, a new patent may shed some light on their next approach.

According to I Fucking Love Science:

“The patent dubs it an ‘aquatic fulfillment center’, which would store goods at the bottom of lakes and other bodies of water.  Waterproof containers with goods inside would be dropped into the water from the air by a parachute. Depending on their density, they would then sink to different levels. Pulses or acoustic tones could then be used to move items or bring them to the surface by changing the density of the packages.  This could be done by changing the charge of the air inside the package, such as how lightning ionizes the air as it streaks through, to change its density. Alternatively, control valves could add or remove a fluid from a ‘flexible bladder’ to change the volume.”

Storing packages underwater may seem like an extreme measure but it does make a lot of logistical sense.  Instead of building single story fulfillment centers spread out across several miles you could instead build vertically by stacking packages within an underground body of water.  It’s a great use of otherwise dead space and leaves more surface area free for other pursuits.  And even if this technology never leads to underwater fulfillment centers its possible that the idea of using changes in density to move objects underwater could catch on.  As a big fan of SeaQuest DSV and the idea of underwater sea colonies I wonder if the changing density via acoustic tone approach could be used to support the infrastructure of an underwater dwelling.

Either way, it’s clear that Amazon isn’t done innovating as it continues its march towards world domination.  One order at a time.

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Is this the Greatest Idea Ever?

The futurists behind the X-Prize Foundation have funded some pretty impressive prize based research whether we’re talking about a Star Trek style Tricorder for diagnosing illnesses or new methods of space travel.  Now they’ve set their sights on another prize based competition that could change the way we think about the future, and best of all, they’ve invited the entire world to participate.

Known as the Seat 14 C Campaign, the competition is a science fiction writing contest to imagine what life will look like in twenty years.  Well known and established sci-fi authors will also be participating in the project, which assigns a different passenger on a plane to each author.  The plane winds up traveling through a wormhole and ends up San Francisco in 2037 and it’s up to each author to imagine what life will be like in the future for their assigned traveler.

All of the seats are spoken for.  Except for one.

As I Fucking Love Science puts it, “All of them, that is, except the passenger in Seat 14C. In an interactive online map of the plane, where you can explore the stories from each writer, you can click on this seat to submit your own short story of what you think the future might be like.”

Seeing as how this is X-Prize competition there is a shiny prize to chase after of course.  In this case it’s $10,000 for a trip for two to Tokyo including a four night stay in a four star hotel.  But this competition won’t be a walk in the park.  Not even for the best sci-fi writer out there.

As any futurist will tell you, it’s awfully hard to predict the future.  Especially a future twenty years from now, and especially a future that’s arriving at breakneck speeds thanks to the continuation of Moore’s Law and other scientific breakthroughs ranging from Quantum Computing to Synthetic Biology that are just going to speed up the rate of progress even more.  Just like how people fifty years ago never could have foresaw the rise of the Internet there are new technologies on the horizon that no one today can predict.

But that’s what makes a competition like this so much fun.  When it comes to imagining the future there’s no right answer.  Only intrigue as myriads of possibilities fill the air. As the official campaign website puts it: please use caution when opening the overhead bins, the future may have shifted mid-flight.

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Is the Seat 14 C campaign the Greatest Idea Ever?

Over the last five years I’ve written about a lot of amazing inventions, technological breakthroughs, and scientific discoveries.  I’m constantly marveling at all that we’ve accomplished and the breakneck speed at which new innovations continue to occur.  But through it all one nagging thought has always bothered me: what’s the point?

None of us are going to be around in a hundred years to reap the benefits.  Humanity may not even survive much longer anyway.  For the steady march of innovation to be worth all the time and attention we pour into it we need an end game.  We need something to aim for.  Figuring out a way to live forever or to download our consciousness into a machine would achieve that goal.  With time on our side we could fully appreciate technological progress the way it was meant to be appreciated.  Thankfully, that goal may now be within reach.  All thanks to a cheap, over the counter drug that might be able to not only extend our lives, but also improve our health along the way.

As Wired puts it, “The drug in question, Metformin, costs about five cents a pill. It’s a slightly modified version of a compound that was discovered in a plant, Galega officinalis. The plant, also known as French lilac and goat’s rue, is hardly the stuff of cutting-edge science. Physicians have been prescribing it as an herbal remedy for centuries. In 1640, the great English herbalist John Parkinson wrote about goat’s rue in his life’s work, Theatrum Botanicum, recommending it for ‘the bitings or stings of any venomous creature,’ ‘the plague,’ ‘measells,’ ‘small pocks,’ and ‘wormes in children,’ among other conditions.”

In modern times Metformin is primarily used to treat people who have diabetes or who have been diagnosed as being at risk of getting diabetes.  It’s worked so well though that doctors began to notice its other health benefits.

According to Wired, “When the FDA approved it as a diabetes treatment in 1994, there was little reason to think it would someday become one of the hottest topics in medicine. But in the following two decades, researchers started comparing the health of diabetics on Metformin to those taking other diabetes drugs.  What they discovered was striking: The Metformin-takers tended to be healthier in all sorts of ways. They lived longer and had fewer cardiovascular events, and in at least some studies they were less likely to suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s. Most surprising of all, they seemed to get cancer far less frequently—as much as 25 to 40 percent less than diabetics taking two other popular medications. When they did get cancer, they tended to outlive diabetics with cancer who were taking other medications.”

But that’s not all.

“In addition to exploring its potential to help treat the most common afflictions of aging, researchers are now also investigating whether metformin might improve symptoms of autoimmune disorders, tuberculosis, and erectile dysfunction, among other conditions. And while much of this research is still in its early stages and may fizzle, Metformin is already prescribed off-label to treat obesity, polycystic ovarian syndrome, infertility, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and acne—not bad for a plant that the USDA officially lists as a noxious weed.”

To be clear, Metformin, isn’t a true fountain of youth.  Technically speaking it’s not going to extend our lifespans.  But it may do something equally important: expand our healthspans.  That period of time that enables us to live healthy lives before the onset of alzheimers, dementia and other age related diseases.  After all, living longer but suffering along the way isn’t something that most people would be in favor of.  Having a better qualify of life for longer on the other hand?  Now, that’s something that everyone would sign up for.

Is Metformin really as good as advertised? That remains to be seen.  But given its long history, lack of side effects, and the amount of attention currently being paid to it, I’d have to say that I like its chances.

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Is Metformin the Greatest Idea Ever?

Here’s a quick look at everything that tickled my fancy over the last week:

Mind Reading AI: Here’s a scary thought: in the future it may be possible to figure out what someone is thinking.

According to Digital Trends:

“…deep learning neural networks can carry out some pretty impressive tasks. Could mind reading be among them?

The folks at Carnegie Mellon University certainly think so — and they’ve got the research to back up their theories. What CMU scientists have been working on is a system that can apparently read complex thoughts based on brain scans, possibly even interpreting complete sentences.

This involved gathering data from a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, and then using AI machine learning algorithms to pinpoint — and sometimes reverse-engineer — the building blocks the brain uses to construct complex thoughts.”

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Heat Resistant Cows: Global warming could affect the ability of cows to graze and survive in warmer climes which in turn would affect humanity’s ability to feed itself.  Scientists aim to change that. 

According to Futurism, “The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) has proposed a plan to make cows more resistant to the temperature increase caused by global warming…The scientists’ plan aims to retain the quality meat cows provide while increasing the efficiency of the process in spite of a changing climate. The first step is conducting research on cows that already handle the heat pretty well. By studying the Brangus cow, researchers hope to identify how it regulates its body temperature, which allows it thrive in hotter climates. Once identified, researchers could use a gene editing tool to give that ability to other breeds.”

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Injection-less Flu Shots: Don’t like needles? Hate getting your flu shot? Scientists have got you covered.

As Futurism puts it:

“We all have that ‘friend’ who avoids getting flu shots out of fear of injections, right? Well, researchers from Georgia Institute of Technology and the Emory University had you — we mean, “your friend” — in mind while designing this new way to deliver vaccinations. Instead of the usual injection, the researchers came up with a sticker patch that you can apply on yourself.

The patch comes with a hundred tiny hair-like micro-needles located on its adhesive side. ‘If you zoom in under the microscope what you’ll see are microscopically small needles,’ lead researcher Mark Prausnitz told the BBC. ‘They puncture painlessly into the skin.” Unlike regular injections that go all the way through the muscle, the micro-needles puncture and dissolve into the upper layer of the skin, delivering the vaccine in about 20 minutes.’”

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World’s Brightest Laser: Scientists have invented a new laser one billion times brighter than the surface of the sun and it’s literally changing the way we see things.  Basically, this laser, instead of just making objects appear brighter, is instead changing what we see when we look at them, in terms of the colors that we see and the way that we observe the light bouncing off the objects.  This means that we could use this new laser to complete tests and make observations that would never be possible otherwise.

According to I Fucking Love Science, “High-energy X-ray lasers are already used worldwide to look at complex chemical reactions, which means this process could produce photons that let us see changes inside an atom’s nuclei directly.”

This could lead to all kinds of exciting new discoveries about the nature of matter!

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Battery Free Phones:  In the future you may not have to worry about carrying around a charger with you when you travel thanks to a new prototype phone that will work without a battery.

As Wired reports:

“Hello, hello.  I am calling from a battery-free phone.” Vamsi Talla’s words in a cluttered lab at the University of Washington in Seattle are barely audible through pops and static. But the fact they can be heard at all, on a nearby Android smartphone, is revolutionary, because Talla’s own cell phone has no battery at all. It draws what little power it needs from thin air.

The prototype cell phone is the culmination of a years-long quest by Talla, a research associate at the lab of Joshua Smith, who researches computer science and electrical engineering at UW. ‘If you had to pick one device to make battery-free, what would you pick,’ asks Smith. ‘A cell phone is one of the most useful objects there is. Now imagine if your battery ran out and you could still send texts and make calls.’

Realizing that vision required rethinking almost everything about how cell phones function today. In order to operate without a battery, the phone would have to rely only on energy that it could harvest from its surroundings.”

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Blood Repellent Super Material: Colorado State University researchers have invented a new life saving material capable of repelling any liquid, including blood and water.

As Futurism reports, “Implanted medical devices like stents, catheters, and titanium rods are essential, life-saving tools for patients around the world. Still, having a foreign object in the human body does pose its own risks – chiefly, having the body reject the object or increasing the risk of dangerous blood clots. A new collaboration between two distinct scientific disciplines is working toward making those risks a concern of the past.  Biomedical engineers and materials scientists from Colorado State University (CSU) have developed a ‘superhemophobic’ surface treatment for titanium that repels liquids including blood, plasma, and water. The titanium is essentially studded with nanoscale tubes treated with a non-stick chemical. The result is a surface that completely repels any liquid with which it would come in contact.”

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Are any of the ideas listed above the Greatest Idea Ever?