For most of us, trying to picture the future is a futile exercise that leads at best to some bad ideas that should likely never be shared out loud. For people like TED Fellow Chris Woebken, it’s why the present exists.
Along with Elliott Montgomery, Woebken runs The Extrapolation Factory, a studio devoted to imagining future scenarios. One recent project challenged visitors to the Museum for Arts and Design in New York to come up with products you might find in a pawn shop in 2050. Like all good science fiction, the results riff off things that are already shimmering in the real world. And like all good science fiction, some of them are more than a little bonkers. A nice twist? You can buy them all, with profits going toward researchers working in that particular area. Here, take a look at 16 objects that don’t exist yet … but might. (Editor’s note, April 2019: These products are no longer available for sale.)
1. A robot frog to replace those wiped out by disease.
The artificial, bio-robotic “Anura-43” frog replaces flesh-and-blood counterparts that had become extinct by 2050. Sadly, the loss isn’t entirely that unlikely: as The Guardian has reported, a fungus epidemic first threatened frogs in Costa Rica in 1987 and it now threatens nearly 3,000 amphibian species.
2. A gizmo to design your children (and your children’s children)
Genetic engineering has provided the basis of much moral handwringing and discussion (see this interview with ethics professor Julian Savulescu). By 2050, concepts such as genetic terrorism and “sterility suicide bombers” will likely have become unnervingly familiar. The “Clean Gene Machine” allows people to visualize and understand all the genetic permutations that could result from their reproducing — and be rid of any unwanted glitches that might result in their children being infertile.
3. A robotic drone to bring you … yogurt.
Even by 2015, companies were excitedly trumpeting the potential of drones (or “unmanned aerial vehicles,” as their makers would rather you called them) to transform lives for the better or, at least, bring you stuff now. (See the TED playlist Will drones save us or destroy us?) By 2050, the “Dro-Yo” could do both through the drone-delivery of yogurt. Why yogurt? Because it might just be the healthiest thing out there. In 2013, Yovivo wanted to use synthetic biology to amp up yogurt’s naturally healthy properties and include clones of resveratrol, the molecule commonly found in red wine that lowers bad cholesterol and improves circulation.
4. Cookie dough that deflects drones.
Because drones will be everywhere, we’ll also need a way to escape them. Eat the “Drone Detection Cookie Dough” and a combination of spider web technology and quartz crystals projects a magical personal biosphere to make you invisible. Downside: this product could make everyone very, very fat. That’s why it’s perhaps lucky this one wasn’t based on much more than wishful thinking.
5. A way to extract gold from sea water.
According to researchers, “marine water is one of the richest sources of gold in nature.” The issue: how to get at it. Using principles of biomimicry, the “Gold Oyster” borrows the way that regular oysters filter their food from water, only it would filter and extract gold particles (for use in phones, etc).
6. Contraception that screens embryos.
The “Next Choice Inherit” device analyzes embryos and implants only those without genetic predisposition to disease. Ray Kurzweil would be proud.
7. A sustainable way to build in space.
In 2014, International Space Station commander Barry Wilmore 3D-printed a ratchet while floating in space, so who knows what we’ll be printing up there by 2050? Another development to track — the use of microbes to catalyze life-sustaining products we won’t want to haul to space. “Spacecrete” uses astronaut waste and microbes to bond rocks and dust into a sustainable building material.
8. The means to knock off a mosquito.
The “Tele-squito” allows you to capture mosquitoes, extract their genes and then implant them into other mosquitoes. Why would you want to do this, you ask yourself? There are good reasons. Really. As Michael Specter (TED Talk: The danger of science denial) reported in the New Yorker in 2012, the firm Oxitec has been working on a way to modify the dengue-carrying Aedes mosquito so that the mutant version essentially destroys its own species.
9. An orchestra played by bugs.
“The Critter Orchestra” basically means you could program small animals (insects, frogs, etc.) to play music. Once again, this crazy-sounding idea is rooted in reality: as Ed Yong (TED Talk: Zombie roaches and other parasite tales) has detailed, the protozoa Toxoplasma gondii can cause personality changes in its host, not always to as benign effect as getting it to bang out “Yankee Doodle Dandy” …
10. A device to record memories.
The “Virtusense” directly connects to your brain via the neck. Why? To capture and retain memories that otherwise might be lost to time. (Given increased life expectancy, we’ll all have a lot to remember.) One interesting question — what happens when the device is separated from the person? Will we be able to borrow or buy someone else’s experiences?
11. An energy carbon credit calculator … that pays off the national debt.
“By 2039, federal debt held by the public would reach 106 percent of GDP, more than in any year except 1946,” estimated an uncheering 2014 report from the Congressional Budget Office. The “Wattexchange” helps to offset this alarming number via a calculator that allows individuals to buy and sell carbon credits.
12. A way to mess with someone’s memories.
“Nightmare Fuel” is a way to replace someone’s perfectly happy memories with, well, with nightmares. Riffing off the 2013 discovery by scientists at MIT that we have a gene that replaces old memories with new ones, this product is the bad, bad application of that insight.
13. A way to overwrite your driverless car’s fateful decisions.
The “Ethx Overwrite” is an add-on for Tesla cars (the 2040 driverless models). It allows drivers to bypass the car’s decisions, such as the one deciding which driver would die in an unavoidable fatal accident.
14. A way to test whether life is sustainable.
This small machine, known as an “Exo-Life,” uses organisms to see whether life in new environments on exoplanets and space stations is viable or not. This riffs off research from NASA and others that would allow pioneers to “build a Mars base with a box of engineered bugs.”
15. A custom-made pill to change your personality.
Forget the gym. Never mind meditation. The “Micro-mind” is a microbial supplement to change your personality in any way you like. (In 2013, scientists posited that the makeup of bacteria in the human might affect not only body weight but also the brain.)
16. A cleaner that eats dirt and dust.
Who’s to say that James Dyson and his merry band of inventors in the UK aren’t already working on a vacuum cleaner that’s, you know, alive? The “Dyson DC99 Cobra” is a living, hanging organism that resembles a plant — and eats hair and dust to minimize cleaning and maximize sparkliness.