This article is part of our Innovation in America series, in which Foolish writers highlight examples of innovation going on today and what they see coming in the future.
Author's note: This is a fictional story exploring how several major technological trends shape one man's life in 2017. It is the second in a three-part series that examines the possible progress of technology through the coming decade.
Building the future
Five years have passed since we left Johnny in 2012. Much has changed in his life. Now 28, he has graduated from Stanford as a robotics engineer and works at Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) in its top-secret Google X skunkworks. He married the girl from Berkeley, and the two share a house in San Jose, Calif. Much has also changed in the world of technology. Some of the latest developments have exceeded what even ambitious technologists like Johnny had imagined five short years ago.
Johnny is working from home today on one of his pet projects for Google X, a humanoid robot with a robust personality. This has long been the dream of sci-fi writers and roboticists alike, and the public often sees such robots depicted as "androids" on film and television. Much of the android-development groundwork has already been laid by other roboticists and artificial intelligence designers, but the tricky part is to combine these qualities into something more closely resembling a real person. Johnny can manipulate an early prototype remotely, and watch its actions in real time, through a secure high-speed connection to the Google X lab.
Did you know? The earliest depiction of "modern" androids in fiction occurred in 1886.
Johnny's workstation scarcely resembles the desktops most workers used in 2012. The development of flexible, touch-sensitive displays -- a merger of flexible innovations developed by Samsung and others in display technology, Atmel (Nasdaq: ATML ) in touch sensors, and Corning (NYSE: GLW ) in protective glass -- has led many knowledge workers to adopt wide, bendable screens hung in a gently arced shape as their primary work interface. Keyboard inputs for these highly interactive surfaces are now controlled primarily by a combination of sensors and projected images beamed onto flat surfaces, though voice control also plays a dominant role when workers move about their workspaces.
Did you know? Thomas Edison patented an early form of flexible circuit manufacturing more than 100 years ago.
Something is wrong with the android's arm movements. Johnny runs software diagnostics, but finds nothing wrong with its responsiveness. Repeated attempts to communicate through software fall short, leaving Johnny frustrated and a little confused. He contacts one of his close friends at the lab, who personally checks the android and attaches a cable to its back for hardware diagnostics. A quick back-and-forth video chat uncovers the likeliest problem. Johnny will have to go to the lab to fix a joint in the android's elbow.
A sleek Tesla (Nasdaq: TSLA ) sedan springs to life when he enters the garage. Johnny bought the company's third-generation vehicle last year to avoid the pain of ever-higher gas prices. It charges wirelessly, using power generated by solar cells sprayed onto his roof tiles. Johnny has paid very little for electricity since absorbing the upfront cost of converting his roof. The car costs scarcely more than the average gas-guzzling SUV driven in 2012 -- and it looks a lot cooler, to boot.
Did you know? Tesla co-founder Elon Musk expects the company to launch a $30,000 vehicle by 2016. Several companies and universities are working toward commercial spray-on solar cells that they claim can be 15% efficient by 2015.
Johnny arrives at Google X's undisclosed location and heads to the robotics lab. The android, placed in standby mode, waits silently and motionlessly in the middle of a well-lit room encircled with advanced electronics, various devices, and several highly specialized machines. Johnny opens a panel on the android's bicep and straightens out its arm. The elbow joint makes a sharp clicking sound.
After some disassembly, Johnny removes the android's forearm and extracts its elbow joint. He places the joint on a circular stand in the center of a small, square table. He activates what appears to be a smaller version of Microsoft's Kinect, mounted on one side of the table, and the circular stand begins to swivel slowly. A three-dimensional rendering of the elbow joint comes into sharp relief on a nearby display, and Johnny runs comparative diagnostics against the original design. Before long, he's found the flaw and sets to work modifying the design to correct it.
When he's finished, Johnny sends the modified joint rendering to a 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD ) printer nearby, selecting a slightly different material than was used in the original joint. To be safe, he removes the android's other elbow joint as the 3-D printer completes its task. The new joint is soon ready, and Johnny removes it from the device's working area, manipulating it a few times to make sure it can perform properly. The old joint, made of standard ABS plastic, was not durable enough for something that might slide against itself thousands of times a day, and had worn a tiny notched groove in its hinge over time. The replacement, smoother at its primary hinge, is made of a harder customized composite material, more closely resembling metal.
Did you know? Some 3-D printers can use more than 100 materials, many of which can be customized for strength or flexibility.
Progress is a process
The world of 2017 may not be radically different from the one we now live in, but subtle changes can have far-reaching effects. The devices we use today, flat and powered by rigid circuits, may soon give way to displays that can be bent, folded, rolled, and carried like newspapers. These may eventually give way to still more advanced user interfaces that do not require a physical surface at all. Advances in software and connectivity will make these new interfaces more user-friendly and more intelligent than any operating system now in use.
Electric vehicles and inexpensive solar power hold the potential to reorder our energy future in more sustainable ways. Many things, from robotic elbows to tabletops, may soon be created by precise three-dimensional printers that offer virtually limitless potential for customization. Innovative companies like Google are hard at work dreaming up tomorrow's transformations. And all this is just a start.
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