The best inventions of 2010

 

In 2010, scientists came up with ways to turn old mice into supermodels, run trains off fat and to stop planes crashing before they’ve even got off the ground. John Holdenpicks his favourite inventions of the year

THE APPLE IPAD

“It’ll never sell,” some said. But one of 2010’s most popular computer devices is, according to one analyst, also the fastest-selling non-phone gadget in consumer-electronics history.

A similar approach to personal computing has been tried before; Microsoft’s Tablet PC for example. But they just didn’t seem to get the hardware and software right. Apple did. The highly criticised touchscreen’s success has left critics feeling a little touched and even though the iPad looks and feels like a glorified iPhone it’s much more than that. If Damon Albarn can record an entire Gorillaz album on his personal computer (he has an iPad) you know it’s in a different class.

GOOGLE’S DRIVERLESS CAR

Machines don’t need us any more. Or at least that’s the case with Google’s driverless car. This “auto-automobile” is kitted out with radar sensors, video cameras, and a laser range finder and has already driven 140,000 miles without having to stop for directions or trade insurance details with any mere human. Others have attempted such a car but Google has the upper-hand because of its already comprehensive Google Earth maps of every lane, street, road and bothairín from here to Vladivostok.

Driverless technology is safer than leaving it up to us fallible humans. If the sign says 70km/h, the car goes 70km/h. Plus motor travel would be more like sitting in one of those really fake TV cars from the olden days.

Hey you could even have a fake steering wheel. You know, so you don’t feel completely pointless?

YOUTHFUL MICE

Scientists from Harvard Medical School, led by one Professor Ronald DePinho, recently ran tests on laboratory mice to see if they could reverse the signs of ageing. According to DePinho, they were, at best, expecting a “slowing or stabilisation of the ageing process”. They got more than they bargained for. Their tests pushed back the signs of brain ageing in the mice and renewed several brain tissues that had the potential to bring back lost skills – like their sense of smell – which had deteriorated over the course of their tiny mouse lives.

The experiments also reversed tissue degeneration across a number of organs, restored normal levels of fertility and even renewed their greying coats! But who gives a $%!T about mice. Can it be done for humans? Theoretically yes. But, according to DePinho, decades of research await us all living forever. Well, at least the mice are happy.

PLANE PROTECTORS

Did you know how many airplane collisions happen each year on the ground? It costs €5 billion just to clean it up! WingWatch is an Irish research project, headed by inventor Gerry Lacey, which has come up with a solution that should prove essential for all major international airlines. Increased airport congestion has unfortunately worsened the risk of these types of collisions. Plus planes themselves have grown in size making it difficult for pilots to gauge their safety zone. So how does it work? “Multiple on-board cameras and cutting-edge computer vision techniques are employed to accurately detect the objects and obstacles and generate a real-time 3-D map of the surroundings.” Simple really.

SARCASM DETECTOR

a) This is a great article.

b) This article is exceptionally well written.

c) Yeah so this article is like genuinely the best article I’ve ever read in the history of journalism.

We know which statement is sarcastic and which appears to be genuine. Because we’re human. Sarcasm is one of the few things that separate modern man from the machine. So, the a sarcasm-spotter was developed at an Israeli university this year.

Designed specifically to spot sarcastic sentences in product reviews, the algorithm has been pretty darn accurate. In a trial using 66,000 Amazon reviews, it scored a respectable 77 per cent.

A UNIQUE BOND

Even though Irishmen and women invented (among other things) colour photography, the modern tractor and the cure for leprosy, it is still a rare thing to find an Irish invention featured in Timemagazine’s list of the Top 50 Inventions Of The Year. But 2010 saw soft adhesive Sugru (sugru.com) join the golden circle. As Timesays Sugru “looks like Play-Doh [but] acts like Super Glue”. Irish designer Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh honed her product for six years concentrating on finding the ideal material that was soft enough to mould yet durable enough to fix or “hack” things. In essence Sugru – a silicone rubber – sticks, hacks, tweaks, fixes everyday things so that they function better. About time.

TRAINS DRIVEN BY COW FAT

Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer train route goes from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth in Texas – the heart of cattle country in the US – and its trains are running on 20 per cent biodiesel made from rendered cattle fat (biodiesel from beef burns cleaner than plant biodiesel).

Going from 0-60 in about a week, the humble cow has never been considered a fast breed. So imagine their surprise when they heard beef-powered trains were running on schedule.

FANTASTIC PLASTIC

The winner of the 2010 European Inventor Award in the “Sustainable Manufacturing” category were German researchers Jürgen Pfitzer and Helmut Nägele from the Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology for their “liquid wood” degradable plastic. Their invention has been 20 years in development.

Made from lignin (which is a wood by-product of the paper making process), resins, flax and other natural fibres, the really neat thing about “liquid wood” plastic is that it eventually degrades – like wood – into harmless water, humus and CO2. (On an unrelated point: in the European “Industry” category for 2010, one of this year’s winners was a Raimund Loser).