Suspended animation, truth serum and immortality – the future is closer than you think

A 3D printed prosthetic arm

Reality is catching up with some of the most outrageous sci-fi technologies ever imagined

LAST UPDATED AT 15:44 ON Wed 28 May 2014

Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy, imagined a world in which "a small, yellow, leech-like" fish known as a Babel Fish could be slipped into your ear, letting you "instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language".

Today that fantasy moved a step closer to reality, with Skype unveiling its "real-time" language translation feature for online phone calls. It is just as Douglas Adams imagined, except that it doesn't come with gills and scales.

"It is going to make sure you can communicate with anybody without language barriers," said Skype chief executive Satya Nadella.

On the same day that Google announced that it plans to begin building driverless cars, the future feels tantalisingly close. Here are some other sci-fi technologies that could soon enter the real world.

Suspended animation
Researchers in Pennsylvania are testing a revolutionary new technique to keep people alive through "emergency preservation and resuscitation (EPR)", the Financial Times reports.

"We are suspending life, but we don't like to call it suspended animation because it sounds like science fiction," Samuel Tisherman, a surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Presbyterian Hospital, who is leading the trial, told New Scientist.

EPR involves replacing all of the patient's blood with a cold saline solution, which immediately stops all cellular activity in the body.

Peter Rhee, a surgeon at the University of Arizona, who helped develop the technique, says the new treatment may help people who are in a critical condition. "If a patient comes to us two hours after dying you can't bring them back to life. But if they're dying and you suspend them, you have a chance to bring them back after their structural problems have been fixed," Rhee says.

The technique was first tested on pigs in the year 2000 by Rhee and his colleagues with a 90 per cent success rate.

"After we did those experiments, the definition of 'dead' changed," says Rhee. "Every day at work I declare people dead. They have no signs of life, no heartbeat, no brain activity. I sign a piece of paper knowing in my heart that they are not actually dead. I could, right then and there, suspend them. But I have to put them in a body bag. It's frustrating to know there's a solution".

EPR will be attempted on humans only in extreme cases who have been admitted to hospital with less than a 7 per cent chance of survival, The Atlantic reports.

Invisibility
Researchers at the University of Central Florida announced that they had made a breakthrough in stealth technology in March, with the creation of a cloaking device that could potentially "mask fighter jets".

Scientists said that they have created artificial nanostructures called "metamaterials" that can "bend light". However, the upshot is "near invisibility" rather than total invisibility, according to Wired. The effect will make objects appear as if they are "covered in a liquid mirror".

"With further work, the team may be able to create large-area absorbers that could be used to cloak fighter jets", Wired says.

Truth serum
Sodium thiopental – part of a family of drugs called barbiturates – was first developed in the 1930s and was used originally as an anaesthetic. Recently, scientists began to notice that after it has been administered, people have a propensity to "chat in a very disinhibited way," and then forget about their conversations immediately. BBC Science presenter Michael Mosley subjected himself to a test of the drug hoping to maintain the story that he was a famous heart surgeon. Initially he managed to hold on to his story, but after a short time (and a slightly higher dose) he confessed everything.

While the drug is not thought to behave 100 per cent reliably, scientists continue to monitor its effects. "I'm still confused about what happened," Mosley wrote after the experiment. "But I think the reason that I spoke the truth on this occasion is because the thought of lying never occurred to me".

Immortality
Last year, Google announced a new medical company called Calico, whose explicit aim is to take on the process of aging itself.

Larry Page, Google's CEO said: "Illness and aging affect all our families. With some longer term, moonshot thinking around healthcare and biotechnology, I believe we can improve millions of lives".

Numerous fields of medicine are working on prolonging life. Scientists have already successfully implanted functioning lab-grown kidneys into rats and early work on creating organs using 3D printers has yielded promising results, offering a solution to organ failure.

In 2009, three scientists jointly won a Nobel Prize for their studies on telomeres – the ends of a chromosome that protect cells against degradation. One theory suggests that if we can work out a way to preserve telomeres, then it may be possible to make cells continue to heal and replace themselves and we would "be another step closer to defeating aging", CNN reports. · 

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.

Read more about