Future: flying cars and neural nets

There’s been a lot of talk about the technologies that will drive our future, and the companies that make them. The past couple of weeks have had some big companies make big announcements on new developments at the cutting edge of technology

Transport takes off

Let’s hope Uber drivers get better at using navigation technology, as they may soon be dealing with an extra dimension. The company recently held a summit for its proposed flying car programme, called Elevate, in Dallas, Texas, where it made it clear that it envisions having VTOL (Vertical Takeoff and Landing) vehicles operational in its fleet in select cities by 2020. To this end, the company is partnering with real estate companies, charging network operators and manufacturers of VTOL aircraft, all of whom are incentivised by having Uber’s massive customer base available to their finished product. Understandably, Dubai is one of the cities on board with the idea, and Texas has also expressed interest in participating in the programme. As with all ambitious projects, technical and legal hurdles lie ahead, but if this takes off (pun intended), the way we commute might be a whole different story at the end of the decade.

India is not isolated from the future of transportation technology. Hyperloop India is among the five shortlisted teams developing pods for SpaceX’s Hyperloop One Global Challenge, trying to bring serial entrepreneur Elon Musk’s dream for land-based transport at 1,000 km/hr a reality. Bengaluru-based WorkBench Projects has partnered with the team on pod design.

Speaking of Musk, the entrepreneur had recently responded to an Indian Twitter user’s query about his electric car company Tesla’s entry into India. While Musk stated that the local laws regarding localisation of parts would impact the entry timeline, the Indian Government’s Make In India handle promptly cleared up Musk’s misunderstanding of the laws, indicating that the powers that be are keeping an eye on the transportation revolution happening in the West.

Augmented humans

3D printing has been continuing its advances, most notably in the medical sector. While already used to create supplementary structures to allow collapsed body parts to recover, and in the creation of prosthetic limbs, the last week saw new advancements in the space. Scientists at the Northwestern University in Illinois induced fertility in mice using 3D printed ovaries, a step they believe will go a long way in helping cancer patients, rendered infertile by radiation treatment, conceive. The team managed to construct a durable structure by creating a lattice of gelatin, made up of broken down collagen, even allowing for blood vessels to form in the ovary.

A smarter assistant

All the big names in technology have been taking stabs at making personal assistants better. While they all did basic tasks like composing and responding to messages, opening apps and playing music, engineers are trying to push them to the next level by perfecting the little things.

Samsung’s Bixby, for instance, launched with the ability to tap into the phone’s camera to analyse objects and provide actionable information. Google has recently rolled out Lens, which effectively gives Assistant the same powers, while slowly expanding the extent to which its neural networks operate under the surface of phone interfaces. Google Photos now suggests image sharing based on people it identifies in images, and the company is even incorporating a specialised software engine called TensorFlow Lite into Android, to make the phone better at the mundane task of recognising text likely to be copied and pasted by the user.

In the larger scheme of things, the brainchild of Google’s DeepMind AI team, the Go-playing AlphaGo AI, is now slowly being accepted as being better than humans at the game — an impressive feat, given that Go has millions of potential move combinations available.

The AI, having beaten 9 dan world number one Ke Jie of China last week, is now being teamed with human players to enhance our own cognitive abilities by analysing the moves it makes in game.

This last week also saw one of the world’s leading technology writers, Walt Mossberg, end his columns on technology after a period of 26 years, more or less bookmarking the era of the technological revolution. In his last piece, ‘The Disappearing Computer’, Mossberg touches upon a future defined by ambient computing, where the device fades into the background, but the functionality is everywhere — a far cry from when he started reviewing clunky personal computers. At the rate that the future is closing in, sometime in the next few years, we may find ourselves dictating apologies about being late to our assistants as we fly to work — “Sorry boss, my Uber pilot landed on the wrong building.”

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