Perhaps you remember sitting in study hall, struggling through some thick textbook full of bewildering terminology and complicated new ideas that frazzled your brain to the point of exhaustion. Well, students of the future are likely to have it a lot easier, because digital books equipped with artificial intelligence capabilities will guide them along with the patience and perceptiveness of their favourite professor.
Take the newly developed Inquire intelligent biology textbook for the iPad. It allows students to stop and type in a question like “What does a protein do?” and then presents them with a page full of information specific to whatever concept they’re stuck on. In a study conducted at a California college, students who used Inquire scored an entire letter-grade higher, on average, than comparison groups.
If you’ve seen the “Iron Man” movies or “The Avengers,” you probably marvelled at Tony Stark’s robotic suit when it talked to him and showed him a continuous stream of data, which seemingly floated into his field of vision within his helmet, constantly analysing and giving feedback about his surroundings. While we probably won’t be able to fly into the air or batter super-villains with our metal fists anytime soon, in the near future we might be able to walk the streets and have pop-up data materialize around us.
The idea of augmented reality (AR) has been around since at least the 1960s, when researcher Ivan Sutherland — better known as the father of computer graphics — authored a paper entitled “The Ultimate Display,” in which he envisioned that a blending of digital information and human vision would create the illusion of being able to peer through walls. By the early 2000s, Columbia University researchers had developed a bulky but wearable satellite dish-equipped rig that enabled a user to peer through special sunglasses and see pop-up graphics about places in a New York neighbourhood. Since then, augmented reality projects and applications have popped up everywhere. For example, the Pentagon’s Defence Advanced Research Project Agency has been working on AR-enabled contact lenses. Such devices will be able to read digital information embedded in the landscape itself, in the form of radio frequency identification tags (RFIDs) attached to objects, buildings and even people.
You’ve probably heard of so-called spoon-bending psychics who claim to possess psychokinesis — that is, the power to manipulate inanimate objects with their thoughts. Well, while those folks may not actually possess such powers, in recent years scientists have made breakthroughs that someday may give all of us the ability to operate machines not by flipping a switch or manipulating a joystick, but by simply thinking about them.
The key to such power is something called a brain machine interface, or BMI, which essentially is a communication pathway that allows your neurons to send signals to external gadgetry, just as easily as they do to your muscles. In the mid-2000s, they had begun to devise electronic brain implants called neuroprostheses, which picked up and translated human neural impulses into signals that could tell a robotic arm to move or manipulate a cursor on a computer screen. The technology is still in its infancy, but scientists envision someday equipping paralyzed people with neuroprostheses that would enable them to control powered exoskeletons to walk and do other everyday activities that fully-abled people take for granted.
But others envision that someday, not only will we be able to turn the stove off or start the car by thinking about it, but we’ll be wirelessly connected to thought-controlled computers and devices that will continually provide us with information — for example, the names of people whose faces we can’t place.