Far out technology for the geek in all of us

Lately I've been wondering how close we are to achieving some of the scientific "miracles" that had previously belonged solely to the realm of science fiction. Here's an update on six of them.

Steve Tobak
View all articles by Steve Tobak on CBS MoneyWatch »
Steve Tobak is a consultant and former high-tech senior executive. He's managing partner of Invisor Consulting, a management consulting and business strategy firm. Contact Steve or follow him on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.
Steve Tobak
3 min read
Kirk and Spock wield their phasers www.phasers.net

Like many of you, I'm a geek, and it extends well beyond my interest in technology. I still read an occasional science fiction novel and look forward to the release of superhero and James Bond movies.

Lately, I've been wondering how close we are to achieving some of the scientific "miracles" that had previously belonged solely to the realm of science fiction. Advances in nanotechnology, biotechnology, and other fields are certainly making lots of exciting things possible in the laboratory, but that's just the beginning.

What I'm interested in is early academic, defense, medical, or even hobbyist applications. Remember, that's where computing and communications started, and look where we are now.

Here are six off the top of my head. And yes, some of them are out there, but my goal was to leapfrog all the usual stuff, like virtual reality, robotics, and the like, which I've written about previously. Some of it may surprise you.

Invisibility. On August 11, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley reported a giant leap forward in invisibility cloaking. Using newly developed nanomaterials, scientists were able to successfully bend light around 3D objects, albeit not quite at visible wavelengths yet, though they're getting much closer. The first application for this technology is in telecommunications, so Harry Potter and the Klingons may have to wait a bit.

U.S. Air Force Capt. Drew Goettler demonstrates prototype laser weapon U.S. Air Force

Handheld laser weapons. In late 2005, the U.S. Air Force demonstrated a prototype nonlethal, green-laser weapon. It's big and heavy, and intended to be used for crowd control or to temporarily blind an enemy, but hey, it's a start. And yes, I know there are lots of lasers in use out there; I'm talking specifically about handheld weapons. Why? Because, I believe this inevitable transition will drive advances in energy beam technology that might be used for who-knows-what applications.

Human bionics. In April, I wrote a post about Bluetooth implants that got some attention. My half-serious thinking at the time was more along the lines of implantable gadgets, but now I'm wondering about human bionics such as electromechanical organs. The first applications already exist in the form of artificial hearts and bionic ears, and there's a long way to go, but I see this as a field that will explode over the coming years.

Colonizing a second planet. I watched a special on the History Channel the other day called "The Universe: Colonizing Space." It was both encouraging and discouraging. The good news is that NASA is working on a program to send humans to Mars for an extended stay and eventual colonization. The bad news is that they want to test everything out on the moon first, which means it's not going to happen for a long, long time.

Commercial human space travel. Richard Branson's Virgin Group and Paul Allen's Mojave Aerospace Ventures recently announced a joint venture to take tourists up into space for about $200,000 apiece. I guess that'd be fun, but I'm thinking more along the lines of mining asteroids and stuff like that. You know, commercial business. Perhaps the technology developed for colonizing Mars could help in that endeavor, as well.

Time travel. Come on, Einstein, get real. Seriously, I read a paper in Scientific American the other day about a new approach to quantum relativity that, unlike prior attempts, does a decent job of predicting the observed characteristics of our universe on both quantum and cosmic scales. And they did it by introducing causality into the equations. So much for the laws of physics being indifferent to time travel. That doesn't mean it's impossible, but it does take some of the wind out of its sails.

Well, those are a few that came to mind. If you're like me, you read about this stuff from time to time and wonder why we're not further along. What's your pet fantasy technology, and where is it today?