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There are 149 separate flying-car projects under way in the United States.

Most of what we think we know about the future comes from movies, books and TV shows. But what’s really coming along in the next 10, 20 or even 50 years?


To get a clue, we Googled around on the Internet – now that would have been science-fiction to us 20 years ago- and also talked to a quartet of experts who make their lives thinking of what might be:

– Michael Rogers, recent futurist-in-residence at The New York Times and the Practical Futurist on MSNBC; now creating a TV series set in 2050.

– Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., which searches for signals from outer space.

– Lois Bujold, four-time Hugo Award winner for science-fiction novels, author of the new book “Cryoburn.”

Thomas Frey of the DaVinci Institute, a futurist think tank in Colorado.

They gave their ideas on seven things we pitched at them. Read on. After all, we can’t implant this stuff directly into your brain – yet.

Anyone else out there?

“I think within 30 years, yes, we’ll have evidence of biology beyond the confines of our world,” Shostak said. Recent research says that 23 percent of all sunlike stars have an Earth-like planet, he said. “That means the number of cousins of Earth in our galaxy alone is tens of billions.

Shostak thinks that – barring an unannounced visit by galactic neighbors – we’ll find E.T. in one of three ways.

It could be in the muck under the frozen water thought to exist on Mars, and on perhaps six other nearby worlds, mostly moons. Unmanned probes would do the work. If anything exists, it would likely be just microbes – but still, he said, wouldn’t that be incredibly exciting?

Or we could put a big telescope in space and analyze the light coming off a planet around a nearby star. There might be an atmosphere, either methane – in which life can exist – or oxygen, which requires life (photosynthesis) to exist. “We wouldn’t know what kind of life it is, but it’s life,” Shostak said. A NASA team has figured out how to do this; it’s just a matter of paying for it, he said.

Meanwhile, Shostak says improvements in technology should enable SETI’s search for alien signals to increase by a thousandfold – within 25 years, it could listen in on one million star systems.

Can you see me?

Researchers have been, um, looking into invisibility for the past few years, working with structures called “metamaterials” made of substances such as fiberglass and copper. But British scientists have recently shown off a flexible film that, as the BBC reports, can “manipulate light to render objects invisible.”

The day when we could vanish like Harry Potter is getting closer, physicist Ortwin Hess told the BBC earlier this month: “It clearly isn’t an invisibility cloak yet – but it’s the right step toward that.”

Rogers said it’s hard to imagine how something as large as a person or a tank could be cloaked. But invisibility technology is “worth watching.”

Will I have my flying car?

Frey thinks we could eventually be as mobile as George Jetson on his commute home from Spacely’s Space Sprockets. There are now 149 separate flying-car projects under way in the United States.

Rogers, though, doesn’t think that will happen for many decades. The technology’s not the problem. Instead, it’s how to control all those vehicles in our airspace – not to mention the enormous liability issues.

The flying car, he notes, “seems to be one of those things futurists predict that never seem to happen.”

Frey thinks flying delivery drones will come first, within 10 years. Police in England are already using surveillance drones to track fleeing criminals.

Home sweet home on the moon?

Funding has been scrapped for NASA’s Constellation Project, whose aim was a human base on the moon. The goal now: a manned mission to an asteroid by 2025, and one to Mars in the 2030s.

Even so, said Rogers: “By the mid-20s we will have people living on the moon.”

They might not be Americans, but those from another country trying to make its mark. Then again, the lunar settlers might not be with any government – look for private industry, most likely mining groups.

“I think someone will figure out how to make money off of it,” said Rogers.

The discovery of frozen water on the moon makes lunar bases much more feasible, Rogers said. But costs will be huge.

Frey thinks that’s why any off-Earth colony is more likely to be orbiting in space rather than based on the moon. “We’re a long way from somebody living out there.”

Will there be robots?

Sure. Lots of them.

But don’t count on them looking like the humanoid robots we’ve come to know, love (or fear) from movies. Instead they’ll be suited for their task. Take the robot cars Frey says are 10 years away: They will look pretty much like cars.

Rogers thinks we’ll have robot helpers to, say, mow our lawns. Armed robots to defend your house will be “big,” he says – especially in economically troubled times and areas.

Frey is intrigued by researchers who are working on swarm-bots, relatively simple and miniature robots that will communicate with each other to work together in teams.

Here’s how your day might start, 40 or 50 years from now: “Imagine yourself walking out of the shower in the morning, and these swarm-bots fly around you and dry you off, or they swarm about you and become your clothing, and change color when you want it … perhaps they can fly you, like Superman, where you want to go.”

Creating the perfect human?

The widespread genetic engineering seen in the 1997 film “Gattaca” is farther away than it once looked, said Rogers: The human genome is more complicated than once thought, and “there are huge social, legal and regulatory issues in the way.”

Tweaking plants and animals, though, will be huge. Indeed, some of the characters in the TV show Rogers is creating about 2050 will be avid hobbyists who show off their genetically modified pets.

Bujold believes genetic tweaking of humans to cure genetic defects – say, diabetes – will be reality in 20 or 30 years.

After that? She envisions replacement organs grown from your own body’s tissue, perhaps even human cloning. Or a uterine replicator, where babies would gestate out of the mother’s body.

Then there’s cryogenics – freezing people to cure them in the future, the subject of Bujold’s new book. At least two companies are freezing dead people now, but she doesn’t think that technology will be practical in her lifetime (she’s 61).

With all those issues, we’ll face serious moral questions, Bujold said.

“But you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. I think it has to be approached with all the caution you have for any technology. There will be abuses, there will be failures. It will never be less complicated.”

Is this the real world?

You know them already – people so linked to their mobile devices that they seem to be two places at once: Here and there.

That’s just a taste of what’s going to happen. “I think we’re going to end up in many cases with two lives, one that happens in the virtual world and one in the physical world,” Rogers said.

That means virtual conference rooms, virtual work, virtual sex and virtual friends we’ve never met – and soon. “Younger people are developing strong abilities to have meaningful, strong relations and do meaningful work in the virtual world,” he said.

Frey said much is being done on getting brains directly linked to computers, perhaps through a cap on your head, something that fits over your ear or through eyeglasses with built-in computer displays. One day digital info could be fed to your optical nerve, then straight to the brain.

“The trend is toward creating this seamless interface between your mind and the information that’s out there,” Frey said.

Via You Web