February 6, 2008

We Could Do It If We Wanted To

Rob Beschizza has a neat blog post up over on Wired about ten sci-fi technologies we could build today if they weren't so cost prohibitive. Some of these are interesting, a couple of them are out there, and a few just don't make much sense to me. Here are my impressions of the ten technologies that Rob chose to write about.

1) Gundam Mecha

For those of you not familiar with the Gundam Universe, a Gundam Mecha is basically a giant military robot. I guess building this robot would be possible, but I'm pretty sure it wouldn't function like the one from the anime series. It would probably be very easy to overwhelm one of these and destroy it, as it would be incredibly slow. We can barely build a robot that can walk up stairs (see #8), so I don't really think one of these would be feasible. It would probably look damn cool, though. You can see a non-functioning life-size replica of one of these robots here.

2) Moon Base

Now this idea would be a bit more useful. Honestly, I'm pretty surprised that at least one country hasn't already established a permanent base on the moon. I suppose we can thank the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent end of the Space Race for that one. I think a moon base would be a great scientific achievement, and it could serve as a point of origin for any number of experiments. At the very least, the lack of an atmosphere would enable much better deep space observation than anything earth-based. Also, if you manage to take enough materials with you, it would be a lot easier (and less expensive) to launch satellites, ships, etc off of the moon than it is to launch them from earth due to the moon's smaller gravitational force. The problem of course, is getting the materials to the moon. I'm not sure what kind of mineral content the moon has, but I'm guessing it doesn't contain most of what we'd need to build satellites and rockets. Maybe we should establish a moon base to look into that...

3) Orbital Hotel

I'm not sure how practical this would be, but then again, extravagance and practicality never did go well together. This space hotel would almost certainly be exclusively for the earth's super-wealthy. Not only do you have the enormous cost of building this thing, you also have the enormous cost of launching people up there, so I would expect a vacation package to such a place to be a tad pricey. Of course, I would love for them to build something like this, though. On the off chance I end up winning the World Series of Poker Main Event or the lottery at some point in the future, I could blow all my winnings by spending a week in space!

4) Transatlantic Tunnel

This is one of the items on the list that doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Exactly what benefit would this provide? Are you going to use it just for shipping or for transporting people too? If there's some kind of accident or breakdown, exactly what is your backup plan here? I'd think you'd need a minimum of six tracks, widely separated in order to avoid any incident on one rail affecting another. It just seems to me that using cargo ships for shipping and airplanes for people is already the most efficient way to move things. I'm not sure this would be very useful.

5) Supersonic Transport

Now, this would be useful. Cutting the trip from London to New York by 75% would be a boon to the business world. Sure, it would be more expensive than subsonic flight, but the companies would pay for it. In fact, they already were paying for it. Remember the Concorde? I think that a revival of a project of this nature is not out of the question. The only question I have is whether or not a standard supersonic jet would be more efficient than a suborbital glider (pdf). I definitely see something like this going commercial within the next thirty years or so.

6) New York to LA Maglev

This, like the undersea tunnel, is not something I see a huge benefit in creating. I suppose the greatest advantage would be for shipping cargo, as opposed to transporting people, as you would be able to get time-sensitive consumables like fruits and vegetables to their destinations faster than by using trucks. Of course, the environmentalists would have a fit if you even breathed a word of a project of this nature in any seriousness. I think it could have benefits, but would those benefits out-weigh the cost to create it? I don't think so, not now or even in the foreseeable future.

7) A Floating City

We've had much smaller versions of this around for a while. Granted, an oil derrick meets the bare minimum in terms of supporting those who live on it, but the concept is very similar. A floating city would certainly be nothing more than a novelty and an attraction for people to visit and spend vacations on. I can't say the idea isn't intriguing, and if this city were able to float around the world to different ports of call, it would probably be the greatest place on earth to live. As long as you don't run into any hurricanes...

On a side note, while it's not a floating city, the Dubai Palm Island Resort on a man-made island in the Persian Gulf is pretty cool, too.

8) Android Armies

Yes, the Japanese have built a human-sized robot, but it's not especially useful at this point. I mean, the damn thing can't even handle walking on stairs. Somehow I doubt the military application of humanoid robots is in the near future, unless it's just as distracting targets. Of course, a huge group of androids all doing The Robot dance would be the best application of such an army by far.

9) Blasters and Railguns

This technology is actually the one that is probably the furthest along, aside from supersonic transport. We don't have any hand-held blasters, but we do have plane-mounted laser-based missile defense systems! It's only a matter of time before we can strap one of these things to our Civics for the morning commute, and finally to sharks' heads. As for railguns, well, just take a look for yourself. The use of these in modern warfare is not far at all.

10) Interstellar Exploration

This is the one that would love to see succeed the most. Ever since I was a kid, I've been enamored with the exploration of outer space. The fact that we might be able to send a small probe to a neighboring star is fascinating to me. I just hope that this becomes plausible in terms of cost within my lifetime. I would love to be able to log on to a website to follow the progress of a probe that we sent to another solar system and see what cool things it discovers along the way.

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