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How close are we to getting superpowers?

By Kira Cochrane, The Guardian
Thursday, July 4, 2013 5:49 EDT
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X-ray vision, inisibility cloaks, time travel and even immortality – they were all once firmly in the realms of science-fiction, but they are now inching closer to reality

What would your superpower be? If it’s x-ray vision, your dream could be a step closer to reality. Next month, at a technology conference in Hong Kong, Dina Katabi, an MIT professor, will present her “Wi-Vi” device, which uses a low-power wi-fi signal to track people moving behind walls. A range of uses has been mooted, from helping find those trapped in rubble, to enabling police officers to avoid an ambush. If your reaction is “Holy privacy issues, Batman!”, it wouldn’t be the first time x-ray vision has prompted concern. Unease over the airport scanners that used backscatter technology to virtually undress passengers – revealing detailed outlines of their genitalia – led to them being removed from US airports in May.

How close are we to other superhero powers? Last month, it was reported that scientists in Singapore have created a rudimentary invisibility cloak, which they illustrated with a video clearly designed to appeal to muggles as much as wizards – it showed a fluffy kitten entering the “cloak” and disappearing so conclusively that a butterfly could be seen fluttering behind it. The device, made of thin glass panels, works by bending light around objects, and the man who pioneered this technology, Sir John Pendry, was honoured with the Newton Medal, the highest honour of the UK’s Institute of Physics, on Monday.

When it comes to time travel, renowned theoretical physicist Kip Thorne told the Guardian last month that a definitive understanding was probably a couple of decades away – but didn’t rule it out. Then there’s that superhero favourite, weather manipulation, which scientists have attempted for decades. In recent years, Chinese officials have taken credit for both causing and curbing rainfall, through the process of cloud seeding, in which shells containing silver iodide are rocketed into clouds, where the compound is thought to influence the size of the water droplets. And in preparation for the 2022 World Cup, Qatar hopes to provide shade from temperatures of up to 50C by creating “clouds” made from a lightweight carbon structure, containing helium gas.

Immortality might be a little way off, but a conference in June explored the chance of achieving it by 2045 – it’s thought we might then be able to keep our brains alive within a non-biological or robot surrogate. Essentially, if there’s a superpower you can think of, someone’s probably trying to develop it. Here’s hoping they just remember: with great power comes great responsibility.

© Guardian News and Media 2013

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