According to AeroMobil, a prototype car/aircraft hybrid that made an appearance at this year's South by Southwest conference, they may be just around the corner. The company announced that it plans to have such a vehicle available to consumers in just two years time.
SXSW is a mecca for futurists, and 2015 proved no exception. From the geeky to the "out there" to the truly remarkable, SXSW is an engineer's playground — complete with drones, self-driving cars and, for the first time this year, even a Robot Petting Zoo.
So what can SXSW teach us about the future of machines? Below, we've compiled some of the most exciting debuts and discussions around cars, robotics and connected devices.
While flying cars may still be a few years off, connected cars and self-driving vehicles are already making inroads (no pun intended) in modern society — and this trend was particularly notable at this year's SXSWi, through panel discussions as well as a variety of prototype vehicles and demonstrations.
C3 Group's Connected Car Pavilion put a number of innovative auto designs on display, including a variety of self-driving models and automobiles with built-in smart technologies. Some of the more relevant panel discussions centered around connected transportation and its impact on our cities, "smart" vehicle-to-vehicle communication and "learning to let tech take the wheel through autonomous driving." Another major announcement at SXSW came from auto company Delphi, which unveiled plans for the first completely automated, 3,500-mile drive across North America.
A few additional future-focused discussions and demonstrations from organizations and companies ranging from the U.S. Department of Transportation to Hyundai included themes of drones, future mobility, 4G connectivity and futuristic technologies such as Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto.
Proponents of driverless automobiles purport that the innovative technology removes the most volatile aspect of driving: Human error. Major technology companies — perhaps most notably, Google — have already begun conducting heavy research into driverless technologies; In fact, Google currently puts its self-driving vehicles through 3 million miles of simulation testing every day.
"We’ve been working around the least reliable part of the car: The driver," said Chris Urmson, director of self-driving cars at Google X at a recent TED2015 conference session focusing on machine learning, adding that he hopes his 11-year-old son will never have to take a driving test.
Tech companies aren't the only ones experimenting in the autonomous driving space: Traditional auto-makers are getting in on the action, too. This fancy driverless Mercedes recently caused a stir after onlookers saw it zipping around Silicon Valley.
Robots are a hot topic today — from the potential dangers of artificial intelligence to how robots are being used for social good and humanitarian purposes, and the possibility of mechanical members joining the family, it's clear that the technology is on the fast track toward the mainstream.
At the SXSW Robot Petting Zoo, some of today's most advanced robotics technologies were on display, and attendees were able to touch, operate and program robots of varying sizes and capabilities — including a robot that actually 3D prints while flying and one made of cardboard that can engage in conversation.
But many of the panel discussions and debates throughout the week focused on deeper, moral issues regarding robotics: What does the possibility of robots that possess not only extreme technical intelligence but also social and emotional learning capabilities mean for our future?
Dr. Cynthia Breazeal, founder and CEO of Jibo, Inc. and associate professor at the MIT Media Lab, spoke to this issue in her riveting session on "The Personal Side of Robots." (Watch the full talk on YouTube here.)
"What are robots going to do for us that will make us want to welcome them into our homes ... and potentially even into our families?" she asked. "Of course, there have been personal robots that have already come into the home successfully. Back in 2002, there was the Roomba; you could say Roomba came into the home because of its relationship with dirt. More recently in 2011, we have the Nest thermostat ... which you could argue came into the home because of its relationship with air and energy."
But, Dr. Breazeal argued, words like "air quality" and "dirt" aren't typically the first words that come to mind when we think about the concept of home — the first thing most of us associate with home is family.
"Is it crazy to think that the personal robot's path into the home in a mass consumer way is because of its relationship with the people who live there? For me, it's a profoundly social technology," she added.
Most people today, suggested Dr. Breazeal, are comfortable with the idea that robots can think and perform cognitive tasks — they can play chess, or plan an elaborate plane route. But we're less comfortable when we think about robots that can actually feel. This concept, she said, is provocative and compelling — and also controversial.
That controversy was evident at SXSW: Anti-robot rallies checkered the week, with organizers stressing the dangers that artificial intelligence might present to humans in the future. And aside from the scary implications of a world running amuck with highly intelligent, emotionally unstable robots, there's the moral dilemma of how we'll interact with them: Will humans have romantic relationships with robots? Will robot torture eventually elicit legal ramifications?
Wearables and VR
Nearly every other attendee at SXSWi seemed to be sporting some kind of innovative wearable device, from VR goggles to fitness trackers and even "smart" jewelry. Some of the more innovative wearables that we saw at SXSW include the Nymi, a gesture-operated device that enables the wearer to wirelessly control their car or computer, the highly customizable NEX band by Mighty Cast, Wearable Solar clothing that looks like something straight out of a futuristic fashion show, smart textiles and more VR headsets than we can count.
Virtual reality is certainly the name of the game in 2015: With companies like Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear and Marxent among hundreds of companies and startups setting up shop at South By, it seems as if we're on the verge of a virtual world of possibilities — from experiencing sports in ways never before possible to virtual reality journalism. It's clear that VR will have a huge impact on our world in the coming days, months and years.
The takeaways? Driverless technologies could become more and more ubiquitous on our roads as soon as five years from now; prepare to welcome mechanical members of your family into your home by 2020; virtual reality is about to become commonplace; and, yes, we just may get our flying cars after all.