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Four crazy tech ideas from Google's Solve for X project

Four crazy tech ideas from Google's Solve for X project

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Google promised radical technology proposals would be a part of its Solve for X project, and its initial offerings so far haven't disappointed.

BACKGROUND: Google piques interest with Solve for X video, website

ANALYSIS: Google Labs' greatest non-hits

In a series of lectures about radical new technology posted on the Google Solve for X page, several entrepreneurs and academics have outlined ideas for technology that seemingly come straight out of science fiction movies. While not all of these technologies are anywhere close to becoming a reality anytime soon, companies and universities are doing the basic research and laying the groundwork for what could be some amazing technological breakthroughs in the years to come. In this article, we'll run down the five craziest, most far-out technology proposals outlined on Solve for X so far and hopefully give you some insight into the future of high-end technology.

One: Computerized contact lenses

This is one of the most straight-up sci-fi technologies being showcased at Solve for X so far but sadly it's also likely the farthest away from coming to fruition. Babak Parviz, a McMorrow associate professor of innovation at the University of Washington who specializes in nanotechnology and micro systems, made the case that we could someday wear contact lenses that could double as personal computer display screens in the future although he declined to speculate on when, exactly, such technology would be mature enough for use.

At the moment Parviz is researching ways to create contact lenses that have sensors capable of using the eye as a portal for health care monitoring. The reason that contact lenses could be ideal for monitoring patients' health, he says, is that they are relatively nonintrusive compared with implanted devices and because they can gather vital health data from tear drops that contain mean of the same essential components as a drop of blood.

So, OK, that's all well and good but what about transforming our contact lenses into augmented reality machines so we can play "Skyrim" while we're walking down the street? Parviz imagines that we'll eventually be able to shrink down technology to the point where we'll be able to include wireless data connectivity into the lenses along with RF energy transfer antennae, display drive circuits and a semi-transparent display that will give us instant data to fill us in on just what we're looking at. So if we're talking through the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, for example, and we want to know a specific species of tree, our contact lenses could take one look at the tree, cross-reference it with other pictures on the web and then display the tree's Wikipedia page right in front of our eyes.

Well, in theory at least. As mentioned before, these super contact lenses aren't close to becoming a reality. But while they may not go on sale in the next year, Parviz is optimistic that they're coming.

"With miniaturization technology we can pack a lot of optical devices in a contact lens and help people see in a different way," he says during his Solve for X lecture.

Two: Unlimited water for everyone

Rob McGinnis, the cofounder and CTO of resource recovery technology company Oasys, has made it his life's goal to figure out how to desalinate water without simultaneously plundering the planet.

The problem, as he sees it, is that desalination simply requires too much heat and thus is not an efficient way to change salt water into fresh water on a mass scale since it typically involves boiling the water until it becomes steam, thus leaving the salt behind it. But what if instead of turning the water into steam we could turn the salt into steam?

McGinnis figures he's found a way to do just that by adding ammonium and carbon dioxide into the water to create osmotic pressure that will draw pure water into a draw solution.

Wait, what did I just say? OK, picture this: You have two chambers filled with different kinds of water that are separated by a membrane that acts as a filter. On the one side you have standard salt water while on the other side you have water with ammonium and carbon dioxide added. The osmotic pressure exerted by the ammonium and carbon dioxide will draw the water through the membrane while leaving the salt behind.

"But wait!" you say. "Doesn't adding ammonium and carbon dioxide to water like that just make more salts?" Well yes, but as McGinnis tells it, those salts can be boiled out of the water at relatively low temperatures so you wouldn't need to use all the energy that you typically use during desalination.

Whether this idea catches on is anyone's guess but we have to admit it's extremely cool and could provide nearly limitless fresh water if it's implemented successfully.

THREE: Wearable computers

We all love our computers but we'd never be silly enough to try wearing them in lieu of clothes. Unless, of course, we could make clothes that acted as computers...

So that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it's something that Kevin Dowling, the vice president of research and development at MC10, wants to work toward. During his Solve for X talk, Dowling outlined ways to make silicon bendy and, yes, even stretchy.

"Using MEMS, or microelectronic mechanical systems, that have been used for accelerometers, you can etch silicon in a variety of ways and actually create flexible silicon nano-ribbons," he explains. "Now you're able to do devices that can strain and stretch in significant amounts."

These flexible devices can be used in ways that current devices can't, such as implantable devices that will now be able to bend more to the shapes and contours of our bodies or sensors that can conform to our bodies' outer ridges and valleys to provide more accurate body scans. So as crazy as it sounds, we may soon have computers that can be folded up like paper or slung around our necks like scarves.

"Silicon by itself is a lot like glass, it's very brittle, very rigid," says Dowling. "But if you can make anything thin enough, whether it's a two-by-four that eventually becomes a piece of paper, you can make it thin enough so that it can be bent."

Four: Massive multiplayer online games that cure cancer

While the massive multiplayer online games that Adrien Treuille has helped develop as an assistant professor of computer science and robotics at Carnegie Mellon may not sound as initially exciting as World of Warcraft, they could have real-world consequences.

Treuille has helped the Center of Game Science at the University of Washington develop a game called Foldit that essentially crowd sources protein-folding puzzles that will be used to determine the proper structures of proteins to accurately predict how they'll react to certain drugs or treatments. As the game's website puts it, "The number of different ways even a small protein can fold is astronomical because there are so many degrees of freedom" and thus "figuring out which of the many, many possible structures is the best one is regarded as one of the hardest problems in biology today."

Treuille explains that while scientists used to rely upon supercomputers to create model proteins for folding, technology has advanced now to such an extent that the computing can be done on a user's home desktop.

"The proteins you see aren't being folded by a supercomputer, it's being folded by an 11-year-old boy," Treuille says during his Solve for X demonstration of the game.

Once users have folded proteins to what they feel is a satisfactory extent, they can submit them to be graded and scored on how effective they are. The game has even started sending money to users based on their scores, thus giving them an incentive to take the game seriously and really put a lot of thought into the ways they fold proteins.

Treuille sees this as a future model of knowledge acquisition where millions of people around the world can try to solve problems in a collaborative manner without needing access to vast corporate or academic resources to get the job done.

"The platform I'm imagining in the future is a platform that will allow us to identify expertise in large groups of people across the Internet," he explains. "It will enable people to discover skills and let them contribute much more deeply and richly than is possible today."

Read more about software in Network World's Software section.


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