Machine Fantasies
© Getty
December 2017

Machine Fantasies

Flying cars, time reversal, invisibility cloaks, hoverboards and humanoid robots … our imagination is full of machines that don’t exist. But wait a minute: a closer look reveals that a lot of these things are already in the making – at least in the laboratories of scientists.

In books and movies, it all seems so simple: Harry Potter dons his magical cloak and becomes invisible. Luke Skywalker in the battle against Darth Vader loses a hand and replaces it with a prosthetic one that has artificial skin and allows him to grip and feel just like it were his own. Captain Kirk zips through space with warp drive and has his crew beam him onto far-away planets. Marty McFly rides a hoverboard across a pond and uses a time machine to travel “back to the future.” And the Blade Runner in a flying taxi chases replicants that are machines that look like humans through the street canyons of Los Angeles. 

Unresolvable contradictions

Are all these just visions of science fiction writers gifted with imagination galore? Or will we have a chance after all to actually experience such machines of the future some day – and if so, when? Some of them can no doubt be regarded as being at home in the realm of fairy tales: those that are technically unfeasible or physically impossible, like the perpetual motion machine, that fabulous device which is supposed to move and simultaneously perform work indefinitely without an external energy source (see also “tomorrow”, 01/2017). For centuries, ingenious inventors would come up with such machines time and again until several scientists in the 19th century demonstrated that a perpetual motion machine would violate the law of conservation of energy – one of the most cast-iron laws of physics. The situation with time travel is similar. According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, it would be possible to travel into the future if rockets were successfully built that could come close to the speed of light. However, a journey into the past would immediately result in unresolvable contradictions, as McFly had to learn as well: a person preventing their own conception would never be born and, consequently, could not travel into the past in order to… A vicious circle that cannot be resolved in our universe!

Machine Fantasies
Beaming necessitates the reconstruction of the data of every atom in the body – an inconceivable proposition if for no other reason than the required memory volume© Getty

Warp drives and beaming belong in this category as well. Although they don’t contradict the laws of nature the resources that would have to be invested in them practically render them impossible. A warp drive would have to curve space in the universe so heavily that the distance between the departure point and destination would shrink to that of a stone’s throw. Physicists have calculated that this would require energy densities of the kind that existed shortly after the Big Bang and generate deadly radiation. In the case of “classic beaming,” the energy and location data of every single atom in the body would have to be known and reconstructed – the information volume required for just this purpose is a million times that of all data currently stored on Earth.

Now in view of overpopulation and resource scarcity, the ability to simply shrink people would be really practical, wouldn’t it? A single cob of corn, a single chicken could feed entire villages and an area of a square meter or 10 square feet could easily accommodate a whole neighborhood of townhouses: an intriguing scenario, cinematized dozens of times. Unfortunately, this is another example of an idea that is prevented from becoming reality by several laws of nature. For instance, there’s no machine which – as would be necessary for downsizing living creatures – could cause atoms to shrink and thus override the Pauli Exclusion Principle, which not only manifests the composition of the atom but also the resistance which condensed matter puts up against further compression. The alternative of reducing the number of atoms would cause the complex structures of the human body system to collapse. Homo sapiens, after all, is not a monad.

True miracles of science

Not science fiction but real science is behind the “philosopher’s stone,” an idea of turning base metals such as mercury into precious gold pursued by alchemists once upon a time. Countless swindlers tried their luck with it and quite often ended up being sent to prison or to the block. Johann Friedrich Böttger in his quest for the philosopher’s stone in 1707 at least managed to produce porcelain, but gold was never made – which is not surprising because the transformation of one chemical element into another one is not possible by means of chemical methods but only by attacking the nuclei of atoms themselves. And this either requires nuclear reactors or particle accelerators. In the 1950s, tiny quantities of gold were produced this way in a reactor in the United States and in 1980 physicists shot atomic nuclei against bismuth that subsequently transformed into gold as well – albeit at the price of some 30 million dollars per millionth gram of gold.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke

Caps of invisibility might become less costly. Known for a number of years have been so-called metamaterials that are able to conduct electromagnetic waves around an object. Scientists have already achieved this with microwaves but for light tailored metamaterials would have to be downsized to thousandths of a hair’s diameter – difficult but doable. However, there’s an easier way to become invisible as shown by a look at nature. Octopuses are able to perfectly adapt their appearance to their surroundings so that they’ll look like a plant or the rock behind them. Something like this could be emulated with sensors, artificial skin and muscles of a kind that would make the pigments appear and disappear again. The necessary 3D printers are now available for all sorts of materials: for plastics, metals and even for human skin. Many sectors, from medical to military technology through to the automotive industry, are working on projection technologies to achieve invisibility as well. They allow the image of the respective background to be projected onto an object so that it will appear to be transparent. Initial successes on internet platforms like YouTube can already be marveled at. Just gimmicks? Not at all. Invisible automotive body parts for instance would massively enhance circumferential visibility in vehicles and thus safety. Blind spots would be a thing of the past.

Robots – your friends and willing hands

By contrast, Luke Skywalker’s prosthetic hand has already become reality. In 2015, scientists in the United States connected a robotic hand directly with a microchip implanted in the brain of a paraplegic patient. Just by using the power of his thoughts, the patient could move the hand. In addition, the hand’s pressure sensors fed back its signals to the part of his brain where tactile impressions are normally perceived. The resulting feeling, said the 28-year-old patient, was the same as the one before his accident when he was still able to grip objects with his own hand.

Machine Fantasies© Getty

Robots and smart machines using artificial intelligence have seen greater advances in the past five years than in all the preceding decades. Machines beat humans in the Go board game as well as in a game of poker and they read emotions such as anger, joy or surprise from human faces. Even the babel fish from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” that you can plug into your ear and that translates all languages is no longer a distant dream. The speech recognition software keeps learning with every spoken computer input and translation programs such as DeepL are rapidly approaching suitability for everyday uses.

In October 2017, Sophia, a robotic lady, debuted before the United Nations, and in Osaka, Japan, androids exist that can hardly be distinguished from humans – with eyes, gestures and facial expressions that provide the impression of being truly alive and skin that feels warm and soft. In the future, such humanoid machines as congenial, willing hands might be able to carry out all kinds of services to assist us in our personal and professional lives. But it will no doubt be a while before that happens as every home and every service is different and a “RoboNet” from which the machines could autonomously download knowledge and new skills is not online yet.

Machine Fantasies
Amazingly human: robot lady Sophia at a panel discussion with her humanoid colleague Han© Getty

That said, who would have thought 15 years ago that today – albeit still in a testing stage – autonomous vehicles would already be traveling on public roads? In the air, the first autonomous flying taxis already exist as well. In late September 2017, for instance, a large drone with 18 rotors was autonomously flying through Dubai. Still without passengers on board for the test flight but the Arab emirate is planning to shift one fourth of its transportation volume to autonomous vehicles by 2030: on the roads as well as in the air. And above the Dubai bay, a fire fighter recently floated toward a bridge to extinguish a blaze there, borne by two strong jets of water on a hoverboard! The event, no doubt, must have reminded a number of spectators of “Back to the Future.”

If, at the end of the day, you ask yourself why some of the fantastic machines thought up by humans are not (yet) on sale, one of the following three answers typically applies:

  • ​The machine goes against fundamental laws of nature or is technically unfeasible, like the perpetual motion machine, the time machine, the warp drive or beaming.
  • ​The machine may be feasible but is simply too costly for practical use, such as the transformation of base metals into gold.
  • ​Or scientists are working on such a machine and initial prototypes already exist but they’re still a long way away from becoming mass market products – such as the hoverboard, the flying cars, the caps of invisibility and the exoskeletons.
Machine Fantasies© Schaeffler
Do it yourself

If Schaeffler is unable to find suitable equipment for its manufacturing requirements, its special engineering department comes into play.

About 1,700 specialists at 16 locations are dedicated to engineering special-purpose machines. Schaeffler typically uses its own resources whenever higher quality, efficiency and flexibility are required or a machine developed in-house can be more effectively integrated into processes and workflow. This way Schaeffler not only secures important know-how but is also able to shorten time to market for complex products such as the electric axle.

Nearly one in two production machines used at Schaeffler comes from the company’s in-house special engineering department which, as a result, ranks among the world’s major mechanical engineering companies.

Ulrich Eberl
Author Ulrich Eberl
Machines of all kinds fascinate author Ulrich Eberl who in the 90s was responsible for communication of future trends at Daimler and until 2015 at Siemens. In 2016, he published “Smarte Maschinen” (“Smart Machines”), a book for which he did extensive research into the future of artificial intelligence in Japan, the United States and Europe. For his personal purposes, he has a favorite machine as well: his domestic robot Nao Bluestar.