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I am not a conspiracy theorist, but. . .
November 30, 2007 11:37 PM   Subscribe

What kinds of high-technology things exist now but will only come to light 50 or 100 years from now? Speculative, but asking for concrete answers.

I was thinking about Scientific American's "50, 100, 150 years ago" column, in which the magazine revisits earlier articles, some speculative, some cutting-edge, current science. Some of it seems silly or absurd in retrospect, but only time provides this lens.

In a sort of reversal, I was thinking about high-technology now, and how some things only come to light many years after the fact. The whole cloak-and-dagger CIA history, with poison darts and exploding cigars, the real James Bond stuff. The military did all sorts of unethical testing (radiation, chemical, etc) on human subjects, and of course we only found out years after the fact through FOIA requests and research.

What about satellites? We know they have a certain resolution (Terraserver, Google Maps, USGS, etc) but that resolution is at the level deemed acceptable for civilian use. What don't we know? Same with GPS-- military GPS is more refined than what you can get on your Garmin or whatever. What other capabilities do you think that they might have that we don't know? What about Eschelon, and Carnivore? What else is there? We know about Raytheon's pain-ray, because they're deploying it now-- what about the stuff "they" don't want to tell us?

Obviously the military-industrial complex is a prime source for this sort of stuff, and I understand that part of the problem of the very nature of my question is this same time-lens that we don't have yet--but we can speculate based on what has come before. If you can come up with ideas, please try to suggest antecedents or why you think that technology X is being used or developed today.

I am looking for answers in any field, particularly science--psychology, biology, physics, cartography, geology, etc.

What shady business is going on that we'll find out about after the fact?
posted by exlotuseater to Technology (41 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
Easy prime factorization.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:45 PM on November 30, 2007


^ because of extremely advanced computing power? Similar to speculation about proprietary genome sequencing?
posted by exlotuseater at 11:49 PM on November 30, 2007


^ because of extremely advanced computing power?

I'm sure certain governments are spending a lot of money on classified quantum computing.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:55 PM on November 30, 2007


Steven:

I am considering what I'm asking.

"I understand that part of the problem of the very nature of my question is this same time-lens that we don't have yet--but we can speculate based on what has come before."
posted by exlotuseater at 12:06 AM on December 1, 2007


If you're asking what technologies are in the early stages of consideration or development now and are likely to hit their stride in 50 to 100 years I'd have to say my first thought is "Space Elevator".

I'd also like to direct you to Nasa's Breakthrough Propulsion Physics (BPP) Project.
posted by krisjohn at 12:16 AM on December 1, 2007


There are spy satellites that have been up for twenty years now. You can pretty much bet that they're powered by miniature nuclear piles.
posted by tkolar at 12:28 AM on December 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


By the way, 50 and 100 years are way too long a time frame. Twenty or thirty years is more like it.
posted by tkolar at 12:30 AM on December 1, 2007


Oh and if they don't already exist, I expect DNA specific viruses to be in use fairly quickly. They're far too attractive a weapon to pass up, and all the major countries will be studying them if for no other reason than to not be caught flatfooted when someone else deploys them.

There may shortly come a time when the genetic diversity of the United States is one of our greatest defense strengths.

In any case, in about thirty years you should start hearing about all of the genetic based weapons that are being developed as we speak.
posted by tkolar at 12:40 AM on December 1, 2007 [2 favorites]


There are spy satellites that have been up for twenty years now. You can pretty much bet that they're powered by miniature nuclear piles.

Longer. And no need to bet. They are. Hurrah. (Random Google link)

Galileo could theoretically reveal what you're interested in with regard to satellites, GPS and capability. Since it is under civilian and not military control, some neat(er) commercial applications could potentially come out of that, too.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:04 AM on December 1, 2007


Brain in a box. When my sister was born 16 years ago, i thought there was god chance she might live forever. But that requires a string first-world nation, a good economy, and a respect for science. Thanks to Bush, I predict (if the uans aren't extinguished by climate change, the resultant wars, and a collapse of civilization) that the Chinese or Indians will achieve it, a little after my sister dies.
posted by orthogonality at 1:05 AM on December 1, 2007


I suspect that there is a lot of work being performed on scary personality-altering drugs that the public doesn't know about.
posted by painquale at 1:39 AM on December 1, 2007


in terms of speculation you'd probably enjoy this.
posted by yoHighness at 5:20 AM on December 1, 2007


I would be willing to bet thousands of euros that no one has a quantum computer. It's not just an engineering problem, our current understanding of physics doesn't fully explain how one would work.
posted by phrontist at 5:23 AM on December 1, 2007


There's a whole school of conspiracy surrounding military application of zero-point energy, mostly for aviation & antigravity, with a sideline into time/universe travel somewhat akin to StarGate: SG1. Go read The Hunt for Zero Point: Inside the Classified World of Antigravity Technology for that.
posted by scalefree at 5:23 AM on December 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


I agree, fifty years is too long. By that time, The Singularity will have come to pass.
posted by Estragon at 5:48 AM on December 1, 2007


Or the Long Emergency, one or the other.
posted by scalefree at 6:27 AM on December 1, 2007


Let me adjust my tinfoil cap before I begin. Genetic weaponry that ties some serious malady with a particular genetic marker based on ancestry. Nanotechnology that would allow for swarming and AI functionality. Micro-machines used for intelligence gathering and weaponry. Projected sound technology to transfer messages into people's ears from distance in a spectrum. Psychotropic aerosol based weapons. I believe that we will see a full shift to voice command technology rendering keyboarding skills obsolete. That will precede technology that will allow users to communicate using brain pathway communication. The end result will be the end of written word dominance and rise of the spoken word. Literacy will drop to the gutter as technology will allow us to not need to understand grammar rules, writing style or spelling. The death knell for the book. Transportation systems that intelligently sequence vehicles to maximize fuel (whatever that fuel will be).

Whew! I am sure there are more floating around in my mind. I think most of these are in the hopper, could be done in the next 20 years, but wont really hit the public (for multiple reasons) for at least 50.
posted by zerobyproxy at 6:29 AM on December 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


Projected sound technology to transfer messages into people's ears from distance in a spectrum.

Synthetic telepathy

Genetic weaponry that ties some serious malady with a particular genetic marker based on ancestry.

Unholy Grail
posted by scalefree at 7:12 AM on December 1, 2007


Oh & let's not forget good old HAARP.
posted by scalefree at 7:14 AM on December 1, 2007


That will precede technology that will allow users to communicate using brain pathway communication.

OpenEEG
posted by scalefree at 7:16 AM on December 1, 2007


I believe that we will see a full shift to voice command technology rendering keyboarding skills obsolete.

Weat IT at Work
posted by scalefree at 7:21 AM on December 1, 2007


Grr. Wear, of course.
posted by scalefree at 7:22 AM on December 1, 2007


Podkletnov's work sure dissapeared quick.

Naptha-based fuels.

Echelon being able to parse spoken speech; "perfect" machine translation.
posted by panamax at 9:07 AM on December 1, 2007


oh yeah, cold Hydrogen fusion in palladium matrices.
posted by panamax at 9:09 AM on December 1, 2007


In a lot less than 50 years, you'll be able to buy, download and 'print out' physical goods at home-- electronic devices like cell phones, general consumer goods like kitchen gadgets, most likely even things like shoes and clothing. Google 'object printer', 'printable circuits' and 'fab'.

As scalefree points out, you'll almost assuredly be able to google things simply by thinking.
posted by oalocke at 10:04 AM on December 1, 2007


Your examples arent of hidden technologies no one knows about but of events using technologies that were previously unknown.

Unethical medical testing with radiation isnt a new technology, its a misuse of radiation. Eschelon is just boring old sniffing of packet-based networks. "Real James Bond" stuff tends to be yesterdays technology. A tape recoder in a briefcase is still a tape recorder.

This is why I'm very skeptical of all the assumed mega-advances out there that business and academia have missed but the much smaller government, with less man power, and less chances of publicizing your name suddenly is going to figure everything out? Not likely. The history of cryptography has shown us that ultra-secret organizations dont have much of a leg up on academia or business. Diffie-Hellman's technique was actually discovered a few years beforehand by some intel organiztion, but that's really nothing and that doesnt give much time for implementation.

So I think the idea of the NSA or whomever having exotic technologies (brain in a box, quantum cpus) is pretty much dead. They most likely in their best case scenarios are a couple years ahead of everyone else. On average, history has shown us, that these organizations work with ordinary technology in extraordinary ways.

So I think this question is impossible to answer without getting into conspiracy theories. Yes the CIA may be testing tasers on monkey in the forest but you wont know until the FOIA and even then theyre using 30 year old technology.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:13 AM on December 1, 2007


So I think the idea of the NSA or whomever having exotic technologies (brain in a box, quantum cpus) is pretty much dead.

NSA, NRO & other technological intelligence agencies are basically collapsing rather than expanding their capabilities. It's a historical trend brought on by the inefficiencies made necessary in the name of secrecy. Open systems are more innovative, self-correcting & resilient than closed ones. The last decade's explosive growth of the Internet has enabled it to pass the IC like it was standing still, which it was. This is a major factor in the whole TSP fiasco, that co-opting the telecom vendors was really a requirement in order to have a hope of keeping up with the firehose.

Fun fact: NSA's Fort Meade HQ schedules rolling brownouts of their computer networks because they don't have the power to keep them all on at the same time.
posted by scalefree at 10:54 AM on December 1, 2007


Further to damn dirty ape and scalefree's points, bear in mind that these days military-related technologies are most likely to be developed by a private company than by the government. When one single government's doing the R&D on a super-secret project, it is plausible that it could genuinely be kept secret. When it's a company that will want to sell the product to more than one national government, much less so.
posted by flashboy at 11:03 AM on December 1, 2007


exlotuseater: " proprietary genome sequencing?"

Available today. Knome is one company that will do it for a ridiculous 6 figure price, but that price won't last. It'll be here for the average consumer in years, not decades.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 11:07 AM on December 1, 2007


Oh! Hafnium bombs. But they're more like vaporware. Speaking of which, maybe you want to look at "Imaginary Weapons".
posted by scalefree at 11:16 AM on December 1, 2007


zerobyproxy, you really do have a tinfoil hat on right now don't you? as for your question exlotus, I do know of one emerging technology..but if I tell you, I'd have to kill you... ok seriously, your question is hard to answer because no technology is exempt from perversion. Perhaps the best way to approach this would be to think of the psychology of people, nations, history of innovations and trends. But I'm not in the biz of conspiracy theories but I do like to peruse these thing once in a while. I grabbed this [Transhumanist Technologies] from an FPP a while ago. Not overly sensational but gives you a primer on the state of these technologies today and a projection on where it might go. It makes for a great read.
posted by Student of Man at 11:39 AM on December 1, 2007


Weather Control?
posted by exlotuseater at 12:10 PM on December 1, 2007


I think voice recognition technology has come along way, and shows promise of revolutionizing human:computer interfaces.
posted by dendrite at 12:19 PM on December 1, 2007


In a sort of reversal, I was thinking about high-technology now, and how some things only come to light many years after the fact. The whole cloak-and-dagger CIA history, with poison darts and exploding cigars, the real James Bond stuff. The military did all sorts of unethical testing (radiation, chemical, etc) on human subjects, and of course we only found out years after the fact through FOIA requests and research.

All of these things were pretty widely discussed at the time, and before. It is only specific details of practical implementation, effectiveness, and short term delivery dates that were ever truly secret.

That is equally true now.



But, to at least give you something to chew on. I think the singularity notion is wrong (even a little dumb), but.. Things are getting astonishingly cheap. Computing power, obviously, but also custom PCB fabrication, desktop CNC machining and 3D lithography. The changes that came first to the publishing industry, and then to music recording, are coming to the industry near you - whatever it makes.

A friend was building some sensitive and irreplaceable gear the other day and stripped a screw, then the screw extractor broke off. What to do? Hire those guys who have an industrial laser in the basement to burn it out, obviously!


What shady business is going on that we'll find out about after the fact?

The thing about shady business is, the people doing it are way to busy being shady to bother innovating technologically.
posted by Chuckles at 12:19 PM on December 1, 2007


Well first, with regard to your question, I think asking about stuff we won't hear about for 50 or 100 years is setting too far of a horizon. Even when the military, or someone, does come up with some whiz-bang technology, someone else will make the same discovery shortly afterward, or at least discover its theoretical underpinnings. So I find it hard to believe that whatever technology they're working with now, we'll just be clueless about it for another 50 years.

This is different from secret operations or activities, which are a totally different story--you asked specifically about technology. The CIA may spy on the Pope, and we may not hear about it ever--but this is not necessarily due to some secret technology, just from good tradecraft.

So, what I think:
Anti-satellite satellites. I'd be surprised if we don't already have this capability in some super-secret form. It's certainly within the ability of defense contractors, but there are numerous political reasons against it.

Alternative energy:
Lots of research in this field, and there are a lot of technologies that exist but are not cost-effective to manufacture on a larger scale. That doesn't preclude their use in situations where cost is less of a factor.
posted by Brian James at 1:53 PM on December 1, 2007


This is the sound projection that I was referring to.
posted by zerobyproxy at 1:59 PM on December 1, 2007


Seconding weather control, as well as miniature flying spy drones.
posted by jasondigitized at 2:55 PM on December 1, 2007


I expect DNA specific viruses to be in use fairly quickly

And the sad thing is that consumer interest in the subject, through the rise of personal genome sequencing and genetic genealogy companies, may accidentally help any bad guys be able to better target their enemies by pre-identifying how DNA is correlated with various ethnic groups. Who needs a scary S.P.E.C.T.R.E.-type R&D lab when a bunch of nice gray-haired genealogists might accidentally be doing your dirty work for you?

To use a specific example with which I'm familiar*, within the past 12-18 months, a few totally amateur genetic genealogists, working together over individual e-mails and two listserves and an American University's lab, figured out that there is/was a ~97% correlation between Ashkenazic Jews (primarily ones with origins in the old Pale of Settlement areas, far Eastern Europe) and one specific y-chromosome sub-haplogroup, which is defined by a specific SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism).** While they were doing this for genealogical reasons, to try to find common ancestors for a number of people who turned up as paternal-line close genetic matches in a certain company's database, the information could potentially be misused someday to make a weapon that could target that ethnic group (by targeting just that SNP) while sparing others. Not that anyone would ever try to very specifically target Ashkenazic Jews based on race, right?

There may shortly come a time when the genetic diversity of the United States is one of our greatest defense strengths.

Hear, hear. That diversity may also come in mighty handy if/when we get faced with another bad worldwide pandemic. Recent years' strains of avian flu in SE Asia, for example, have been hypothesized to be turning up as either lethal or non-lethal in affected family clusters due to maternal-line factors, i.e. maternally-linked families are either surviving or dying in similar patterns, but paternally-linked family groups and spouses show no such patterns.

*Because my brother's sample, and thus all my male relatives on my paternal side, was one of the first to be confirmed positive for the SNP outside of a research paper.

**To clarify, men who have that one SNP have been from that background 97% of the time; that is not the same as saying that 97% of people from that background have that SNP. The other 3% with that SNP have so far been a mix of Swiss, Italian, and Pashtun -- which is kind of ironic, since that's the main tribal component the Taliban is made of...
posted by Asparagirl at 3:59 PM on December 1, 2007


Fusion, most definitely.

Universal translators (like in Star Trek). We already have all the elements to make this possible:
  1. Speech-to-text software for the handicapped
  2. Translation software to convert the text into another language
  3. Text-to-speech software to output the translated text as spoken language.
The tricky part is the quantity of data you have to sort through. The higher the accuracy (and thus, more natural sounding), the greater amount of combinations and permutations necessary for comparison.

A rudimentary example of this was recently built by IBM for English <> Arabic translators for troops deployed overseas.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:05 PM on December 1, 2007


Extraordinarily maneuverable unmanned military aircraft, with superhuman reaction times. Why? Well, joystick operated surveillance platforms have been around for a while, and there are now ones which are armed. Taking humans out of the loop is the next logical step. An argument against is that it could trigger an arms race threatening American air superiority.

I consider it unlikely that there are any quantum computers knocking about - accruing the amount of expertise necessary would be almost impossible without attracting attention.

The NSA is full of great mathematicians, so there may be several quantum algorithms unknown to us, (graph isomorphism, perhaps). Perhaps that's not the stunning revelation you're looking for.

Russia is probably furiously working on some very clever military kit right now, so look for things like a Shkval with a range closer to that of a medium range ballistic missile, or even a nuclear powered one that can cross an ocean. I don't think that the latter actually exists, but it could come into existence rather rapidly, should that be necessary.
posted by topynate at 7:27 PM on December 1, 2007


If you put together the big things emerging now: nanotech, biotech, AI, robotics, wireless networking; leave to simmer for 50 years of exponential growth, I think you end up with some really rather kick-ass cyborgs.
posted by MetaMonkey at 5:13 AM on December 2, 2007


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