Welcome to the Feel Good Future

At TED and other geek gab events, the focus is not on what is, but rather what’s possible. Here are five inventions whose time may soon be coming

The Makani Airborne Wind Turbine
The Makani Airborne Wind Turbine Feedloader (Clickability)

Let’s think big thoughts. Everyone else is. Out in Long Beach, they’re in the middle of  the 2012 TED conference, where really smart people pay $7,000 to hear other really smart people talk about things that make them sound really, really smart.

In February, Google rolled out its own version of geek gab, with a name that screams high school math club: “Solve for X.” And earlier this week Microsoft staged its annual TechForum, where it showcased its contributions to the cutting edge. Even the Department of Energy joined the prototype party a few days ago, with a conference in Washington designed to highlight bright ideas that may never make it past demo phase.

All of the above are geared to stretch beyond innovation into the realm of “What if?” They’re about celebrating imagination and invention, and with that often comes an upbeat spin on the future. Otherwise, why invent? Case in point: one of the first speakers at this year’s TED event was Peter Diamandis, head of the X Prize Foundation, and one of the founders of Singularity University, which has been described as an “academic boot camp” in Silicon Valley for inventors and entrepreneurs. For Diamandis, the glass isn’t just half full, it’s spilling over the top.

He riffed on the theme of a new book he’s written with science journalist Steven Kotler, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think. His take is that human ingenuity and the exponential growth of technology will solve many of the planet’s more vexing problems, including water and energy shortages, in ways we’re only starting to imagine. As Diamandis puts it, “The world is getting better at an extraordinary rate and most people are unable to see the good news through the flurry of bad.” For more rays of his sunshine, check out this clip made prior to his appearance at TED.

In the spirit of Diamandis’ rosy forecast of the future, here are five big ideas that may make you feel better about what’s ahead:

Plenty of juice

It says something about the crowd at TED that a guy gets a standing ovation for talking  about batteries. In fairness, though, this was one awesome battery. Even Bill Gates tweeted about it. MIT professor Donald Sadoway shared his story of how six years ago he started developing a liquid battery, a three-layered device comprising high-density molten metal at the top, low density molten metal at the bottom and the layer of molten salt in between.  His prototypes got bigger and bigger until he was able to produce a working model the size of a 40-foot shipping container. I know what you’re thinking: What am I going to do with a 40-foot battery?  But Sadoway’s invention isn’t about us, it’s about cheap energy, or actually the storage of it, and if it works as well as he says it does, it could be a game changer in making wind and solar power a lot more reliable.

A mightier wind

While we’re on the subject of renewable energy, another invention involving wind power took center stage at the Department of Energy’s confab. Created by Makani Power of Alameda, California, it’s called an airborne wind turbine, but looks more like a small airplane with four propellers. Yet  it doesn’t actually fly anywhere. It’s tethered to the ground, but moves in large circles more than 600 feet in the air. Because it’s small and follows a continuous circle, the flying turbine can generate power in winds too weak to turn a more conventional wind turbine. Its developers think it would be most valuable as an off-shore power source, a lot cheaper and less obtrusive than ocean wind farms.  It would need only  to be attached to a buoy. The Department of Energy has already invested $3 million in the project. Google has kicked in another $20 million.

Plugged in

At Google’s “Solve for X” fest, Kevin Dowling, R&D vice president for MC10, a Massachusetts firm, gave the audience a sense of just how far we’ve come in our ability to bend and stretech electronics. Scientists can now weave electric sensors into paper, leather, vinyl and just about any other flexible surface and can build electric arrays into strips thinner than band-aids that we can attach to our skin. Dowling talked about catheters with sensors that can provide a ”cinematic visualization of what’s going on in a heart in real time,”  and gloves that will allow surgeons to actually touch a beating heart and send images wirelessly to a display screen. Dowling explains it this way:  “You’re essentially putting eyes in your fingers.”

Cart blanche

Microsoft, meanwhile, provided a glimpse of grocery shopping in the future at its TechForum. No more pushing carts around the store for us. Instead, the “Smarter Cart,” designed by Chaotic Moon, a mobile apps developer in Austin, Texas, as part of a partnership with Whole Foods, would use Microsoft’s Kinect 3D camera and voice recognition system to help the cart follow us around the store. The cart, which has a Windows 8 tablet attached, could let also let you know in which aisle the dog treats are hiding and also suggest recipes, although hopefully not involving dog treats. But here’s the best part: No more checkout lines. Your cart has its own scanner. You shop, you scan, you leave. The future’s already rosier.

A little birdie told me

Back at TED the other day, another demo that dazzled the not-so-easily impressed crowd featured what could become the Defense Department’s smallest spy. It’s the Nano Hummingbird, by AeroVironment Inc., of Monrovia, California, developed for DARPA, the Pentagon’s research arm, and it’s designed to not only move like a hummingbird, but also look like one.  So it can hover or sit on a branch, all while shooting video. The little drone can fly as fast as 11 miles per hour, go sideways, backward and forward, as well as go clockwise and counterclockwise. Its flights, controlled remotely, can last close to 10 minutes.

Imagine what Albert Hitchcock could have done with this.

Video bonus: And now a video interlude from U.S poet laureate Billly Collins, who also took the stage in Long Beach, proving that the TED folks gets the soul thing. Collins now sets some of his poems to animation, showing that he gets how they like their entertainment.

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