Thursday, 8 January 2015

Weren’t we promised flying cars by now?

It may come as a shock to readers of a more mature vintage to learn that the classic futuristic film Blade Runner was set in 2019. Tom Grady wonders how close we are today to travelling by flying car.

'San Diego Comic-Con 2007' by Jason Scragz. Re-used under a Creative Commons licence.
The film was made in 1982 but only 3 years earlier, the Usborne Book of the Future was predicting all kinds of interesting developments (not seen any gold mines in the sky yet, but artificial intelligence and 'space-based superscopes' weren't so wide of the mark).

And Marty McFly may have been using his hoverboard in 2015 but it doesn't look like we’re going to see them in Currys any time soon (though you can buy them on Amazon where a prominent disclaimer warns the unwary buyer: "this product does not fly"). But we might not be so far away from seeing Ridley Scott's replicants working in your Library.

Westport Public Library in the US recently unveiled a pair of humanoid robots whose job will be "to teach the kind of coding and computer-programming skills required to animate such machines". Named Vincent and Nancy, the two robots have cameras, microphones and motion sensors, and use sonar to detect walls. An article in the Wall Street Journal explains:
Vincent and Nancy can recognize faces and detect where sound is coming from. They have a "fall manager" that helps them right themselves after a tumble just as a human might, grunts and all. They can even "touch" and "feel" with the help of tactile and pressure sensors.
The robots come equipped with programming software, but embedded within that software are compatible programming languages, such as Python, that can be used to expand the capabilities of the NAO bots. Aldebaran [the manufacturer] also has a large development community continuously adding new behavior apps that facilitate everything from high-five gestures to a "wake-up" routine including yawning and stretching.
This is what they look like (they're pretty cute):

Robot manufacturer Aldebaran's booth at an exhibition. Picture by Axel Voitier
re-used under a Creative Commons licence.
Aldebaran robots like Vincent and Nancy (picture credit as above)
And if that seems incredible, hold on to your hats because self-styled polymath has just designed a futuristic car! Not a flying one, sadly (though one of those exists), but one that is "equipped with four 180-degree external cameras that allow panoramic photos to be captured on your phone".

Now, your initial reaction may be similar to that of Alex Petridis in The Guardian who observed that "there are people out there who'll say that taking 180-degree panoramic photos on your phone while you’re driving sounds incredibly dangerous - in fact, it sounds like the kind of thing you would find yourself doing immediately before accidentally running someone over". But who knows?'s invention could actually just be one step behind the realisation of Deckard's hovercar.

Further reading:

The Library has a couple of DVD versions of Blade Runner (Director's Cut and Final Cut) and we also have several books discussing its significance and genesis, as well as a copy of the draft script.

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