#2. "Remotes" (Miniature Hover Bots)
In Star Wars, remotes aren't something you use to mute your holographic space TV, they're little spherical droids that float around and carry out whatever tasks are required of them aboard spaceships: repairs, carrying equipment, reconnaissance ... basically, they're butlers in the form of soccer balls. That float. And pack lasers.
Floating and lasers: two things historically lacking in conventional butlers.
After seeing them in the movies, science decided to go right ahead and tinker up some remotes of their very own. We're being completely serious there, by the way -- on the first day of class back in 2000, MIT engineering professor David Miller showed his students the scene where Luke trains with a remote and told them, "I want you to build me some of those."
And, with backup from NASA and the Department of Defense, they've done just that. SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites) are designed to carry out general tasks in a zero-gravity environment, the idea being that they'll serve as mission control's proxy presence aboard the spacecraft -- zipping around to perform maintenance checks, creepily watching over the astronauts while they sleep, and basically doing whatever else the eggheads in ground control tell them to do for their amusement.
"No, please, not the laser again!"
Today, there are three of these adorable little smartphone-powered droids hanging out on the International Space Station (red, blue, and yellow, in case you were wondering). Sadly, none of these early models comes equipped with lasers, but they do come equipped with tiny gas cylinders and ridiculously complicated algorithms that allow them to efficiently navigate through their weightless environment and, of course, do the ol' hands-free juggle:
#1. Prosthetic Limbs With Feeling
We're fully aware that we covered Luke's bionic hand in the first iteration of this article. However, while it's true that the field of prosthetics has made some mind-boggling leaps in the past few years, the aftermarket parts have always been lacking in one area in particular. Watch this snippet from The Empire Strikes Back and see if you can spot what that might be:
After the New Hand Droid gives Luke his new hand in the movie, it tests it out by pricking it in several places, and Luke feels the pricks. No amount of amazing advancements in robotics can replace that sense of touch, and just think of how important it is: If you had no way to differentiate between the amount of pressure you're applying when removing a lug nut versus, say, "tugging the ol' lug nut," if you know what we mean, you'd be in for a world of hurt.
But then DARPA took some time off from bringing us death and destruction in new and zany ways to create an artificial limb interface that actually allows its user to feel.
What is this black magic? Well, DARPA's Reliable Neural-Interface Technology program (or RE-NET, because despite all its prodigiousness, DARPA still isn't quite clear on how acronyms work) has been busy figuring out how to plug prosthetic interfaces directly into the recipients' nerves to "control prosthetics and to provide direct sensory feedback." In other words, he's controlling that prosthetic arm in the very same, unconscious manner that he controlled his old-fashioned flesh-and-bone model -- and it's not a one-way street, because the interface allows him to feel with it, too.
While the technology obviously isn't perfected quite yet -- in that video demonstration, for example, we're pretty sure his beard caught more of that latte than his mouth did -- it's already nuanced enough to allow the wearer to snatch a stripper hanky out of midair:
It also allows for the precision placement of $5 bills.
Josh wants you to be his friend on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, and learn how to be awesome at everything on his column This Ain't Amateur Hour. Aaron Short is a film student. You can check out his blog on film stuff ... if you dare.
Related Reading: We started catching up with Star Wars a while back. Read about it here, and learn about the intelligent droids we're building to show up C-3P0 and R2-D2. And speaking of Star Wars, did you know the biggest plothole in that series had to do with the humanity of stormtroopers. If all that deep musing has you bummed, read about the Star Wars characters too retarded for film.