Nine Inventions I Believe We’ll Actually Be Using in the Future

Driverless taxis

Making predictions is a fool's errand. Think of all the past prognosticators who swore we'd have flying cars by now, while utterly failing to dream up something like Facebook. That said, it is fun to look back and see who was right on the money with their future visions: the "PADD" devices unveiled on Star Trek: the Next Generation in 1987 certainly presaged today's iPads. And so I offer you these not entirely implausible predictions about what will be commonplace in twenty years, if not sooner. Feel free to check back in 2033 and see how wrong I was.

  1. Driverless taxis. Google's driverless cars are already street-legal in California and Nevada. Although they have not been approved for commercial use, it's only a matter of time. Sure, there will be millions of people who distrust the idea of riding a car without a driver, but Google's cars' safety records are thus far pristine. Human error is the cause of most accidents, and since robot cars don't panic, make last-second decisions, get lost, or take risky chances, they're theoretically far safer. Once they're adopted, their first use will likely be for transporting goods, i.e. trucks. But human taxi drivers – and I'm not referring to those well-studied professionals in London or Tokyo, but to those gruff, underpaid cabbies in Los Angeles who barely speak English, drive like maniacs, and often don't know where they're going – can't compete with safe, efficient, and honest robots. Climb in, scan your credit card, type in the address of where you want to go, and relax.
  2. Wrist phones. The iPhone seems to do everything we could expect a phone to do, doesn't it? So it's hard to imagine where we go from here. The answer, of course, is something even more portable. You still have to carry your smartphone in your hand, which can be inconvenient (and illegal while driving). So let's go all the way back to the 1930s, and Dick Tracy's "two-way wrist radio", for inspiration. Why not wear our phones on our wrists? It's no different than wearing a watch – and, of course, these phones will double as timepieces. (The company Pebble is already producing programmable wristwatches.) And why not embed a camera, so you can talk face to face? Just add a modest Bluetooth earpiece and off you go.
  3. Pen computers. The problem with wrist phones is that their screens must be rather small – like the square-inch screens for the old(!) iPod nano. Too tiny for Web browsing or email reading. So if you're losing your smartphone, where's your mobile computer? Google wants it to be within a pair of glasses. But I don't think that's going to catch on. Instead, imagine a computer the size of a fountain pen. Pull it out of your pocket, press a button, and it projects a laser keyboard onto any horizontal surface. (Such keyboards already exist.) It also projects a crisp touchscreen "monitor" onto any vertical surface. (This technology's not quite there yet.) Or perhaps paper-thin OLED technology will finally hit the mass market, and you can simply unfurl an OLED screen from a slot in your pen computer – just like the old home movie projector screens of granddad's day.
  4. OLEDs everywhere. Speaking of OLEDs... I can be a Luddite about some things, but OLEDs are not one of them. OLED stands for "Organic Light-Emitting Diode", and as mentioned above, they are basically like LCD screens, except that they are as thin as card stock, and equally flexible. They've been around for a few years, but the "killer app" for OLEDs – more "killer hardware", really – hasn't arrived yet. But when it does, the public will embrace the huge potential for this technology, and OLEDs will be mass produced on the cheap. They won't just turn up as TV screens and computer monitors, but – once they can be mass-produced in large, thin sheets – we might have OLED wallpaper, window shades, even clothes. OLED T-shirts, with little animations or whatnot, would probably just be a passing fad, but advertisers will take to the technology like flies to poop. You may well see OLED posters plastered to walls, stuck on sidewalks, even handed out as fliers or direct mail. But only if they're cheap to produce.
  5. Vapor touch screens. Who needs an OLED when we are at the forefront of vapor touch screens? Pioneers like the Russian company Displair may ultimately evolve into something more reliable (Displair itself claims that their product won't be consumer-ready until 2018), but what looked so cool in Minority Report is here now: sheets of water vapor, so fine that the droplets themselves are "dry and solid", are shot upwards from below, forming a permeable yet fully interactive touch screen.
  6. Nanobots. Medical technology is the one field that always has room for improvement, since everybody would rather have lasers or sound waves harmlessly pass through their bodies than doctors hacking through flesh and bone in order to get at those pesky internal organs. Nanobots are already well into development, but there's no reason why they won't be widely adopted. Just swallow them or be injected with them and they will enter your body and get to work. Killing cancer cells, repairing damaged tissue, stemming internal bleeding, shrinking fat cells... you name it, nanobots can (theoretically) do it.
  7. Skin tints. Fashion has been stuck in a temporal loop for at least the last 20 years, with everybody just recycling old ideas instead of moving anything forward. Are we really at the end? Can nothing new be done with clothing, hair, makeup, and body modification? As a solution to this impasse, I give you skin tinting – yes, right out of The Hunger Games (the book, not the movie). Swallow a pill that turns your entire body blue. Or green. Or pink. Presumably this would be temporary. Now, I don't know if the technology could really exist. But even if you doubt that it would catch on – though surely someone will want to one-up tattooing, since tattoos haven't been "edgy" for years – on a more practical level, skin tints could "fade" unsightly blemishes like birth marks, liver spots, or rosacea. Or unwanted tattoos, come to think of it.
  8. Self-destructing biodegradable materials. As we go deeper into this list, we move further away from reality. Now, I'm not talking about time travel or teleportation, but this is definitely Mission: Impossible territory. Now that we have biodegradable/compostable shopping bags and eating utensils, the next step is to make something that has the ability to immediately be turned into dust, powder, or whatever – with the pull of a tab at the bottom or the popping open of a little bubble in the corner. The idea – and remember, I know absolutely nothing about chemistry, so this could very well be impossible – is that by releasing a particular chemical compound, a material's molecular structure could break down instantly, reducing physical waste and speeding up the process in which garbage can be turned into compost.
  9. DNA computing. This was recently in the news, but I recall hearing about this way back in the mid-'90s: the idea that human DNA can actually make an incredibly powerful processor for computer technology. It's fast, it's complex, it can contain a great deal of information at a microscopic size. Though it's moved past the truly sci fi-sounding "gelatin cartridges" that were originally envisioned as containers for this substance, it could open the doors to hyper-secure technology, where your DNA code – contained on a tiny bio-key that you can plug into any data port – could replace passwords, credit cards, even house keys.