The future of transportation may mean not moving at all.
Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and technology theorist, envisions a future in which advances in nanotechnology, genetics, and robotics give us immortality; clean, free energy; and a completely new definition of mobility. Think plug-in electric cars and maglev trains are the transportation innovations of tomorrow? Kurzweil is looking quite a bit further down the road.GOOD: How will technological advances change transportation in the 21st century?Ray Kurzweil: For starters, we will replace a lot of transportation with the ability to meet each other in virtual reality. I give about a third of my speeches around the world using a virtual-communication system that allows me to appear at a venue in three dimensions and in real time. My image is three-dimensional, life-sized, and fully realistic. As I move around, the audience sees their local background behind me.Ultimately, virtual reality will be extremely realistic and incorporate all of the senses. If we go out to around 2030, we will be able to send someone an information file (as an email attachment, for example) and they will "print" it out in three dimensions to create virtually any three-dimensional object, such as a computer, a solar panel, a module to build housing, food, or clothing. This will replace most of the transportation needed to ship products.G: So we'll have realistic virtual reality and the ability to print three-dimensional products at home. Will travel be altogether obsolete in the future? What's the time line for this happening?RK: During the teen years of this century we will use high-resolution image beamers in our glasses to beam images directly to our retinas to create full-immersion visual virtual-reality environments, and use comparable devices for the audio component. Since most business interactions are visual and auditory, this will meet most business needs for meetings.By the late 2020s, nanobots in our brain (that will get there noninvasively, through the capillaries) will create full-immersion virtual-reality environments from within the nervous system. So if you want to go into virtual reality the nanobots shut down the signals coming from your real senses and replace them with the signals that your brain would be receiving if you were actually in the virtual environment. So this will provide full-immersion virtual reality incorporating all of the senses. You will have a body in these virtual-reality environments that you can control just like your real body, but it does not need to be the same body that you have in real reality. We'll be able to interact with people in any way in these virtual-reality environments. That will replace most travel, but we'll also have new travel technologies for our real bodies using nanotechnology.G: Wow. Well, in the near term, President Obama is talking about converting the federal fleet to hybrid cars and spending $8 billion on high-speed rail. Given the radical changes you envision, does this focus on hybrid cars and high-speed trains seem shortsighted to you?RK: It's not shortsighted. These are constructive steps and bring us closer to a world of clean energy. Twenty years from now we will be able to get all of the energy we need from very inexpensive nanoengineered solar panels and store the energy in small, decentralized nanoengineered fuel cells. Solar power is, in fact, doubling every two years and has been for 20 years, and we are only eight doublings away from it meeting 100 percent of the world's energy needs. And we have 10,000 times more sunlight than we need to do this. But we cannot simply implement a circa-2029 infrastructure today. We should use today's technology aggressively to meet challenges such as clean energy.
"By the late 2020s, nanobots in our brain will create full-immersion virtual-reality environments from within the nervous system. That will replace most travel."
G: As you say, we're stuck with 2009 infrastructure for now, and it's built for the automobile. What do you see as the future of the car?RK: Our personal vehicle will depend on the era. Within a decade, cars will communicate with each other, avoiding accidents. Some navigation systems are already taking current traffic patterns into account. That will be ubiquitous quite soon. In the 2030s, we will have personal flying vehicles that use nanoengineered microwings.G: What do you see as the future of travel in space?RK: We will continue to explore space as an engineering challenge and as a way of exploring our part of the universe. But space travel will be of strategic importance to our human-machine civilization in the 22nd century. At that point, we will have exhausted the resources on Earth and will move out into the rest of the universe. For the most part, we won't be sending out missions of squishy creatures but rather swarms of nanobots.G: What future transportation challenges are we failing to anticipate right now?RK: Right now, transportation is a major contributor to the negative environmental effects of energy usage (and I believe we should be looking at the full range of these environmental issues and not just greenhouse gases). But as I said, we will be less reliant on transportation as virtual reality becomes more realistic.