So Crazy, It Just Might Work
Space, they say, is the final frontier. But the truth is that frontiers surround us: our world is filled with unanswered questions and unsolved problems. We still don’t even know how childbirth works! With those unknowns looming, the odds are often against the inventors, teachers, scientists, urban planners, doctors, and others who try to tackle the big issues. But every now and then, the impossible happens. Below, a brief introduction to eight of the likeliest unlikely innovations that could become reality in the next decades (or sooner).
Learn to Speak Doggo (and Dolphin)
Con Slobodchikoff, an emeritus professor of biology at Northern Arizona University, has studied prairie dog communication for over 30 years and believes that the critters have a language that he has managed to decode through computer analysis. According to Slobodchikoff, prairie dogs have sounds to describe animals, colors, sizes, and more. But when you get right down to it, how many people are dying to talk to a prairie dog? Domestic dogs, though, are another story.
In 2017, Slobodchikoff founded the company Zoolingua, which is devoted to bridging the communication gap between man and man’s best friend. “Imagine something as simple as pointing your cell phone at your dog and hearing a translation of what he or she is trying to communicate,” muses the copy on Zoolingua’s website. The company is amassing thousands of videos of dogs’ vocalizations and body movements, with the goal of classifying these forms of communication and using a computer program to decode and translate them into English. It’s still early days; according to Zoolingua’s site, they’re “raising funds to get to talking to dogs in 2 years or less.”
The idea that animals other than humans have language is still a controversial one; the New York Times reported that Yale University linguist Stephen Anderson found “the idea of a prairie dog language … ludicrous.”
Meanwhile, in the Bahamas, researchers with the scientific nonprofit Wild Dolphin Project are collaborating with a team at the Georgia Institute of Technology to explore human-dolphin communication. The Georgia Tech team uses machine-learning algorithms to uncover patterns in dolphin vocalization and has built a wearable computer called CHAT (Cetacean Hearing Augmentation Telemetry) that translates dolphin sounds into English. The team teaches the dolphins whistles to identify objects, such as seaweed or a rope. When CHAT hears a whistle, it plays the English translation into the ear of the researcher. CHAT also plays whistles that dolphins can hear. When CHAT first successfully translated the whistle for seaweed in 2013, Denise Herzing, director of the Wild Dolphin Project, told New Scientist she was stunned.
“It turns out the dolphins are trying to communicate in ways we didn’t expect, ways that we’re not programmed to recognize,” Herzing said on the Ocean Allison podcast in December 2018. Thus, CHAT is undergoing adjustments. But when it comes to talking to animals, she is a realist: “They’re wild animals. They don’t really need to communicate with us. They have a lot of fun things to do without us.”
Body Odor: The New Fingerprint
A fingerprint has long been seen as one of the easiest ways to identify a person. But what if our unique odor—which we spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to conceal with baths, deodorants, and a litany of perfumed products—were an even better way to differentiate people?
It’s entirely possible, says Dr. Gary Beauchamp. Beauchamp is the emeritus director and president of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a nonprofit scientific institute in Philadelphia devoted to researching taste and smell. He says studies suggest there is “almost no doubt” that each one of us has a distinct, personal scent that sets us apart from everyone else.
Odor as an identifier may sound bizarre at first, but Beauchamp says there are plenty of reasons it could be much better than other biometrics. Facial-recognition technology, for instance, could potentially be fooled through plastic surgery. But if scent is genetically determined—which researchers think it is—then it would be very difficult to fake or alter. It also lingers after a person’s gone, meaning it could potentially show where they had been. This is the principle at play when dogs track people.
“Like everything else, I can imagine that this could have both good and bad consequences,” says Beauchamp. He recalls a comic strip he once saw, in which a missile was outfitted with an operational “nose” that allowed it to seek out a specific person.
And although Beauchamp says it is “highly likely” that there will be a breakthrough within the next five years, we still need a more sophisticated understanding of personal scents and the instruments that can detect them. Until those things happen, it’s unlikely anyone will be called upon to pass a literal smell test.
Drinking Water, from a Power Plant
A new company wants to put power plants to work producing something other than energy: fresh drinking water.
Power plants, you see, are responsible for about 39 percent of all fresh water withdrawals in the US. That’s because water is used to prevent power plants from overheating—and afterward, it evaporates and escapes in telltale plumes. It used to be that you couldn’t recapture this water in a cost-efficient way; it was gone for good. But Infinite Cooling, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based energy start-up founded in 2017, has changed all this.
Infinite Cooling’s team developed their technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The process involves installing a dome-like device on top of a power plant’s cooling tower equipped with a high-voltage electrical field that ionizes the air. The electrically charged water droplets then attach to a wire mesh, from which they are diverted into a collection system. Derek Warnick, chief operating officer of Infinite Cooling, says this technology is able to collect 20 percent of the water a facility would typically release and recycle it for continued use, cutting back on the need for withdrawals from lakes, streams, and municipalities.
“At its core, the problem that we’re trying to solve is the impending and current global water scarcity,” says Warnick. “We see a lot of waste in terms of how water is used, particularly in industrial processes.”
Warnick adds that this system, which has been installed as part of a pilot program at MIT’s power plant in Cambridge, could also be used for data centers, factories, or even large offices that use evaporative cooling. And because evaporating and recondensing water is essentially a form of distillation, it could become a source of fresh drinking water. This, Warnick says, would have a “profound impact on water scarcity, not just in reducing the amount of fresh water consumed by facilities, but by producing fresh water when there is none available to begin with.”
Spraying the Arctic with Sand to Fight Climate Change
Like a lot of people, engineer Leslie Field saw Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth and decided that something had to be done about climate change. In 2008, she founded a Silicon Valley start-up, Ice911, to tackle the problem.
Ice911’s mission is to restore multiyear Arctic ice, an estimated 75 percent of which has been lost due to rising temperatures over the past 30-odd years. In addition to raising sea levels, the depletion of Arctic ice is responsible for upwards of a quarter of global temperature rise: multiyear ice (ice that has survived more than one summer) is highly reflective—it bounces back the sun’s rays. As it vanishes, so do the reflective properties that help cool down the planet.
Ice911’s answer to the problem? A very thin, reflective layer of eco-friendly, silica-based material that would be applied to young ice as it forms. This cheap, man-made material has a sand-like texture and is hydrophilic—it sticks to ice and water and stays put. Field and her team have tested it in several locations, including Utqiagvik, Alaska, the northernmost tip of the US in the Arctic circle. The researchers first distributed it by hand with tools similar to giant salt shakers, and then used a modified seed spreader dragged behind a snowmobile. They showed they can slow down ice melt by at least 20 percent.
Field says once they have permits and funding, they’re ready to deploy at scale. For that, they won’t be using salt shakers or snowmobiles. Using climate modeling to figure out the best places to strategically distribute the material, they’ve floated the idea of employing modified oil tankers to blow it into ice as it forms in the winter, providing young ice with the reflective properties of multiyear ice.
Field is quick to point out that curtailing Arctic ice melt is just one of the ways to combat climate change, but it’s an important one: the ice melt intensifies the effects that can be felt throughout the world in the form of drought, wildfire, and powerful nor'easters. “As they say now, what happens in the Arctic doesn’t just stay in the Arctic,” she says.
A Plane Without an Engine
In November 2018, Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers announced that a strange-looking, five-and-a-half-pound aircraft with a 16-and-a-half-foot wingspan had made a short, groundbreaking flight around a gymnasium at the Institute. It looked a bit like a glider mashed together with a biplane, outfitted with a pair of futuristic-looking blue wings. Aside from its unusual appearance, the plane—which flew about 200 feet—was unique because it had no moving parts. Steven Barrett, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, described it as “the first ever sustained flight of a plane with no moving parts in the propulsion system.”
The aircraft, called an “ion plane,” uses “ionic wind” to fly. In the front of the craft are rows of wires that conduct 40,000 volts of electricity, provided by a battery pack in the plane’s fuselage. Forty thousand volts is enough energy to turn electrons into positively charged ions, which are then attracted to a row of negatively charged metal wires in the back of the plane. As the ions course from front to back, they collide with neutral air molecules, creating enough wind to propel the plane.
Barrett’s idea was inspired in part by Star Trek, in which futuristic ships glide silently through the atmosphere. He thinks that, in the near future, ionic wind could be applied to fly quieter drones—which an article in Nature cautions “will rightly worry many and should be openly discussed.” Barrett can also envision the technology helping to create quiet, hybrid passenger planes that don’t use up as much fossil fuel. Whether they will be outfitted with transporters and replicators is another matter.
A Wardrobe Grown on the Compost Pile
At San Francisco–based MycoWorks, a team of engineers, designers, and scientists is growing mushrooms, but not for delivery to the Bay Area’s many restaurants. Rather, they’ve concocted a way to turn mycelium, the root-like fibers of mushrooms, into a durable imitation leather on par with actual animal skins. Mushrooms, says MycoWorks’s founder, Phil Ross, are “one of the greatest transformers on the planet,” as they efficiently break down dead organic matter. By manipulating the conditions under which the mycelium grows, scientists can transform it from its basic state and grow it into any number of things—from bricks to a leather-like material.
MycoWorks—which grows its mycelium from agricultural waste like corn cobs and rice hulls—has shown off mushroom-based leathers with patterns grown directly into the material. The company’s researchers say that they could even cultivate mushroom leather that already has fasteners grown in, negating the need for additional materials and processes to affix buttons or zippers to, say, purses or jackets. Over the years, they’ve produced synthetic leather of varying toughness, from a supple lambskin-like material to one as sturdy as deer hide.
On the other side of the country, in Nutley, New Jersey, biofabrication company Modern Meadow is also making non-animal leathers—with gene-edited yeast. Typically, yeasts eat sugars and produce alcohol, but with the help of DNA editing, the Modern Meadow team was able to get yeast to consume sugars and produce collagen, the main component of animal leather. The result, a product that they call “liquid leather,” can be poured into a myriad of shapes and patterns and transformed into a solid material branded as Zoa. (Andras Forgacs, who founded Modern Meadow in 2011, previously led a start-up that 3-D-printed skin tissue for medical use.) According to a 2018 Inc. story about the venture, over 150 companies, including some from the fashion world, have approached Modern Meadow about collaborations.
Whether bioengineered leather catches on with the public remains to be seen, but it has already captivated at least one notable audience; in 2017, MoMA installed a biofabricated Zoa leather T-shirt in its show “Is Fashion Modern?” alongside items like Levi’s 501s and a Little Black Dress. “Synthetic biology holds such potential for fashion,” MoMA senior curator Paola Antonelli told Forbes, “and for the areas where it may draw impact away from, for example, reliance on animals or petrochemicals.”
To Egg-finity, and Beyond
The fact that human females produce a finite number of eggs—indeed, that they are actually born with all the eggs that their bodies will ever make—has driven much of the science and cultural anxiety around infertility. But current research is now showing that there may be a solution. While women may stop producing eggs due to menopause, cancer treatments, or other reasons, new research suggests that doctors may be able to grow eggs from ovarian stem cells for use in in vitro fertilization—even after a woman’s body has stopped producing eggs naturally.
The very idea that human females have ovarian stem cells is still a bit controversial, says Dr. John Jackson of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Stem cells are able to divide and replenish other cells; men have stem cells in their testes that allow them to produce sperm throughout their lifetime. But until recently, the commonly held belief was that women do not have ovarian stem cells and therefore can produce only a finite number of eggs.
But recent studies have challenged this belief, and Jackson is encouraged because WFIRM researchers have been able to isolate ovarian stem cells in rats and grow them into mature eggs that can then be fertilized by sperm. If ovarian stem cells could be found in humans, the idea is that women would get a small biopsy of their ovary and doctors would then use that tissue to grow mature eggs, which could be fertilized and implanted in the uterus.
The same tissue-engineering technology has been applied to hormone therapy. Typically, women undergoing hormone-replacement therapy get an injection of drugs to replace the ones their bodies no longer make. But researchers at WFIRM have taken individual cells from the ovaries of rats, induced them to secrete estrogen and sex hormones, and implanted them in rats whose ovaries have been removed. The cell-based therapy proved more effective than traditional therapy when it came to improving bone and uterine health, and because it mimics natural hormone secretion, it’s a good alternative to taking a daily dose of drugs, which are said to increase the risk of heart disease and breast cancer.
Dr. Jackson says that if ovarian stem-cell technology turns out to be a viable option for infertility, we’re still probably around ten years away from anything actually hitting the market. (He also cautions that it’s a “huge leap between a rat and a human.”) But he’s hopeful; WFIRM has already begun testing on human donor tissue.
A Space-Based Early Warning System ... Powered by Animals
On August 15, 2018, a pair of Russian cosmonauts spent several hours floating outside the International Space Station, installing a nearly 10-foot-long antenna in order to gather data on animals across the globe, from blackbirds in France to wildebeests in Namibia. The mission: use information beamed from creatures outfitted with tiny trackers that report everything from location coordinates to humidity, with the goal of creating a global “internet of animals” that will help us understand species decline and migration—and maybe even aid in the prediction of natural disasters.
Called the International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space (or ICARUS, a.k.a. the character from Greek mythology who perished after flying too close to the sun), the project is the brainchild of researcher Martin Wikelski, managing director of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany. “Once we tune our knowledge into what can be gained from wild and domestic animals, we learn so much more about life and about the earth that we didn’t even know we were missing,” says Wikelski.
The data gathered from ICARUS will be applied to conservation issues, as well as analyzed to better understand natural phenomena like animal migration. But Wikelski also has another bold hope for ICARUS. Anecdotal evidence holds that animals often behave strangely before big disasters: hibernating snakes wake up before an earthquake, elephants flee before a tsunami hits, or birds get restless before a volcano erupts. Using animal tracking, Wikelski hopes to explore these claims and then back them up with hard science in order to create an early warning system for natural disasters. He’s already gotten started: in 2012, Wikelski tagged a herd of goats who roam the slopes of Sicily’s Mount Etna, an 11,000-foot-tall active volcano. So far, he says, the results of that study have been promising. Scientists tracked the goats over two years and were able to compare the data collected to volcanic activity in the region, retroactively “predicting” major eruptions based on the goats’ behavior.
In the future, Wikelski envisions people downloading an app powered by animal-gathered data that would send out alerts warning of potential danger. He even sees this working in non-rural communities where zoo animals or urban wildlife could be utilized—which is why you may one day receive a life-saving message from a pigeon.