Archive for July 24th, 2009

Yesterday’s Tomorrows

by Toby J Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

Rosie the Robot

Rosie the Robot

The future isn’t what it used to be. With all of the recent nostalgia for the moon landing, I’ve been looking at some of the images of the future as seen from the 1960’s and earlier. When doing so, it is often easier to see what they got wrong, than what has come to fruition. After all, it is plain to see that we do not have robot maids, like the Jetson’s Rosie, picking up after us and taking care of our daily chores. On the other hand, some of us may have robots designed to vacuum our floors, while other automatons toil away at washing and drying our dishes and clothing.

I have devices that will answer my phone and take a message when I can’t be reached or, more likely, bothered. Heck, I even have a machine that will watch television for me when I’m otherwise occupied; allowing me to finally show those network executives who’s the boss. So yes, there are many modern conveniences that do plenty of work for me while I rarely have to lift more than a finger to program their various functions. Do I have a mechanical butler?  No; but do I really need one?

What about some of those other promises of the future? Super computers are common place. An average laptop has many times the processing power than the room full of computers used to make the first moon landing possible.

My first home computer could save and load programs from a cassette tape recorder, the same one I used to tape songs off the radio. Each side of the tape could hold 6 or 7 songs.

Twenty five years later, a single device, smaller than one of those cassette tapes, stores hundreds of songs, captures video and photographs, can tell me where I am on the planet, can connect to the internet, has a calculator and chronograph; and, believe it or not, can also be used to make telephone calls.

Working together, home computers lend their processing power to large scale projects such as SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Even our toys are getting into the act with game consoles like the Playstation 3 linking over the net to create what may be one of the most powerful computers on the planet. This system isn’t just for playing games; it’s actually seeking cures for many diseases by participating in Stanford University’s Folding at Home project.

In the project, proteins which carry out important functions in the body are examined. Before the proteins can do their job, they must first assemble themselves in a process known as folding. When proteins do not fold correctly, or misfold, there can be serious consequences, including diseases such as Alzheimer’s, “mad cow,” Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, and many cancers and cancer-related syndromes. You should consider lending your game console or computer to the project the next time you’re done blasting mutants and zombies, or reading a blog.

The best visions of the future often showed an understanding of science mixed with insight and imagination. Jules Verne accurately predicted deep sea submarines powered by atomic energy, as well as men landing on the moon. In his writings, he described the ships in which we would travel into space as trains whose compartments would fall away as their fuel was spent – a fair description of a multi-staged rocket.

Flash Gordon style ray guns find their analog in beam weapons being developed for military application. Remote controlled craft and planes, designed to keep soldiers safe, reflect predictions and work done by scientific luminaries such as Nikola Tesla. Whether it’s a Phaser or a Taser, both can be set to stun.

While computers, zap guns, and robots may not be exactly the way they were imagined years ago, they are none the less a part of our daily world.

Now, where’s my flying car?

July 2009

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