What Does the Future Hold? Listener Prediction Special

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In this special edition of Quirks & Quarks, we've invited you, our listeners, to predict the future.  We have five listener visions of how our technology and our world may evolve and change, and we've invited Canadian scientists to fact-check those visions against current trends and future directions.  What we've discovered is that our listeners are pretty smart! 

 


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Self Driving Cars

google_car.jpgGoogle driverless car - copyright S Jurvetson
Listener Linda Dow of Sudbury imagined a future in which the tedious chore of driving had been eliminated completely by the development of self-driving cars.  And Wes Pliska of Regina anticipated that, eventually, people wouldn't even be allowed to drive on public roads - leaving the driving to the cars.  Well, according to Dr. Steven Waslander, director of the Waterloo Autonomous Vehicles Laboratory in the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering at the University of Waterloo, they're both on the right track.  Dr. Waslander points to current projects that have proven the technology of autonomous vehicles, and he anticipates a shift to more and more automation in our vehicles in the next decade.  He thinks it won't be long before he leaves the driving on his long daily commute to his car.
          
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3D Printing Revolution

Airwolf_3d_Printer.jpg Airwolf 3D printer, copyright E Wolf
Listener Ron Roy from Ottawa is a tool-and-die maker, but he sees the future making his work obsolete.  Mr Roy thinks that 3-D Printing will transform our future, making it possible to fabricate anything at home - toys, drugs, even weapons and organs.  Dr. Matt Ratto, the director of the Critical Making Lab, in the Faculty of Information, at the University of Toronto, couldn't agree more.  Using technology similar to that used by inkjet printers, Dr. Ratto says that we're already printing all sorts of objects from plastic, and there have been successful experiments printing cells into simple human tissues.  The next step will be finding effective ways to print more complex objects that include different kinds of materials, and then ultimately finding ways to use some future technology to build or "print" objects from individual atoms or molecules on up.  Star Trek's replicator may not be far behind.

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The Future of Fresh Water

well.jpg Well, well, well. Copyright D. Kerr
Listener Thomas Delahooke from Vancouver's prediction of the future is not of a technological utopia.  He's concerned about one of our fundamental needs, and worries that climate change and over-extraction will mean that, in the next fifty years, we may run out of fresh water.  Dr. Diana Allen, who studies water issues in the Department of Earth Sciences at Simon Fraser University, shares his concern.  Dr. Allen points out that climate change will lead to the loss of glacial melt that feeds many rivers, and that shifts in weather patterns are expected to leave some areas around the world drier.  She's also studied groundwater supplies - water that feeds wells - and notes that in many parts of the world groundwater is being removed far more quickly than it can be replenished.  However, she thinks local water shortages are more likely than running out altogether, and thinks improved management of water resources could make a huge difference.      

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Artificial Intelligence and the Singularity

HAL9000.jpg The infamous red eye, copyright  Cryteria/Morning Lemon
What's the future without super-intelligent computers?  Well, nothing at all, if listeners Ron Bobker of Oakville, Ontario and Jeremy Nowack of Southampton, Ontario, are correct.   Mr. Bobker predicts computers as intelligent as humans in the next 100 years or so, and Mr. Nowack anticipates that this will lead to humans downloading their minds into computers and achieving digital immortality.  Dr. Chris Eliasmith, Canada Research Chair in Theoretical Neuroscience and director of the Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience at the University of Waterloo, says yes and no to this prediction.  Intelligent computers might be on the horizon, or, in fact, they may be here already, but part of our problem is deciding what we call intelligent.  Is it what the computer can do?  Is it how it does it?  Since we don't really know how to define human intelligence, it's difficult to do it for a computer as well.  Nevertheless, he's sure that increasing sophistication of computers will, at the very least, make this problem more difficult.  On the other hand, downloading the mind is not quite so easy to predict.  The biggest problem is that we don't know how to capture the fabulously complex state of the human brain to do the transfer.


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Fire in the Boreal Forest

forest_fire.jpgNorthwest Crown Fire Experiment, courtesy USDA
Listener Wesley Stevens of Toronto's prediction is a catastrophic worsening of fire conditions in the boreal forest, and the burning of 50% of the great northern forest by 2075.  Dr. Mike Flannigan, Professor of Wildland Fire at the University of Alberta, and Director of the Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Science agrees.  At current rates of burning, nearly 50% of the area of the boreal forest will have burned by 2075.  However, this sounds worse than it is.  The boreal forest contains many tree species that are adapted to fire, and that require it for their new seed cones to open and the forest to regenerate. However, fire frequency is increasing, and will likely continue to do so with climate change.  At some point, in some regions, fires may be so frequent that the forest may not be able to regenerate.  Increasing rates of fire also threaten human activities and settlements, and may have feedback impacts on climate change.

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Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein, Creative Commons License by-nc-nd-2.0