We asked scientists if your wildest invention idea could ever come true

We asked scientists if your wildest invention idea could ever come true

By Marion Renault
The Columbus Dispatch

Most people have been in the midst of a tedious chore and wished someone would invent a gadget to make it easier. We wanted to hear about those dream inventions, so we hit up COSI visitors for their visions of the future. Then, we asked Columbus scientists and experts to weigh in on whether those ideas could ever become reality.

"Why not power lights, microwaves and computers with water?" — Lolu Nzombola, 7, Midlothian, Virginia Hydroelectricity is not at all something that we've abandoned in the United States! There are lots of rivers with hydroelectric potential that already have active plants that produce energy. For rivers where developers are proposing to build even more dams, the effect of development on wildlife habitat remains a big obstacle. Another option is to overhaul or even replace existing plants so they operate more efficiently and produce more energy per unit of water.
— Ramteen Sioshansi, associate professor of integrated systems engineering, Ohio State

"Self-charging phones, so your iPhone never runs out of juice" — James Mraz, 16, Jacksonville, Florida To develop a self-charging phone, all the energy spent on lighting the phone screen, running apps, taking pictures, etc. would have to be recovered. While it would be impossible for a system to capture all of a phone's wasted battery, it is possible to recycle some of that energy. That's what OSU and Nikola Labs did by developing a self-harvesting phone case that reclaims wasted radio frequency energy and recycles it to extend useful battery life.
— Roland Tallos, lead engineer, Nikola Labs

"Grading machines for teachers: You feed it homework; it spits out a report card" — Shane Hart, 34, Groveport, Ohio Will machines do the grunt work of grading for K-12? Well, it depends on the kind of work being graded. The techniques to grade close-ended questions — such as multiple-choice questions in mathematics — are quite mature and well-implemented. As natural language processing technologies develop, machines can also score some open-ended questions for writing quality, written content, and even speech. However, as education activities more and more focus on complex real-world problem solving, machines and technologies are not advanced enough to assess students’ problem-solving, critical thinking and collaboration skills. Overall, the role of machines will not begin to replace teachers, but will help make their grading process more efficient.
— Kui Xie, director of the Research Laboratory for Digital Learning, Ohio State

"A robot to clean your room, so children and adults alike can focus on the better things in life" — Ryan Evans, 10, Grove City Robot manipulators were invented in the United States in 1961 to automate the manufacturing industry. Domestic robots that do household chores are still a dream of robot researchers and engineers worldwide. The challenge is the cost-to-functionality ratio. Today a reasonably priced robot can only do one thing effectively — such as the Roomba floor cleaner — but can't tick off more than a few items on the household to-do list. For a robot to do every chore a person can, it would have to have a level of sophistication that's out of reach for today's technology. As artificial intelligence advances, more single-task robots will become available. But entirely replacing human beings for household chores will not be possible for a long time.
— Yuan Zheng, electrical and computer engineering professor, Ohio State University

"Washer/dryer/folder: This self-folding machine would take all the work out of laundry" — Kari Welch, 27, Mount Sterling At least one company has claimed the title for the world’s first fully automatic laundry-folding robot. The laundroid bot, first announced as a concept model in 2015, can sort, wash, dry and fold clothes in about five hours. "We see laundry folding as the next area of housework that you should be liberated from by automation," they proclaim on the venture's website. Another robot laundry machine, San Francisco-based start up, Foldimate, will fold, steam and spray your clothes with a fragrance. It started taking pre-orders this year.

— Marion Renault, Dispatch science and environment reporter


"Holograms: Concerts and art galleries of the future would feature holographic performance with 3D projections of musicians or sculptures" — Jo Edwards, 17, Urbana I like the sentiment of the question. I think yes, as processing gets faster and calculations on algorithms can be made in real time, we will get better at this sort of thing. Right now, there’s no way to have a live concert and watch a holographic performance of that concert somewhere simultaneously. We’re still not very good at even projecting a recorded performance. But in time, I think we’ll have the capability to do it. The challenge is how to make an image look super realistic. Holograms look like holograms, not real people. If you step back from holography and go to augmented reality, where you’re looking at three-dimensional display, we could probably do the concert in real time. But you have to have the headset. Our minds aren’t good at seeing 3-D images — that’s why you have to fool your eyes so that each one sees something a little different.

— Dick Ridgway, mission and defense technology business unit chief scientist, Battelle


"A capsule for patients in which they can grow back lost limbs" — Ari Arnone, 18, Stockton, New Jersey This seems unlikely, or at least the part where you get into a capsule or pod , because of the length of time it takes to grow a human limb. It doesn’t mean we can’t grow a replacement limb and attach it, but you probably won’t be climbing into a pod and regenerating them quickly. Today, researchers are working on 3-D printing an organ — which is even tougher than a limb. So this total vision won’t happen, but parts of it are underway now.

— Steve Risser, research leader and current Inventor of the Year, Battelle


"Pocket-scribe: This pen would write down what you dictate to it, in your own handwriting" — Martaysha Moore, 14, Dayton Parts of this vision are already a reality. Programs exist that can automatically transcribe audio, as well as computerized pens that digitize handwritten notes.

— Marion Renault, Dispatch science and environment reporter


"For the needle-weary: a machine that scans your arm and can take blood measurements without breaking skin" — Ken Goodrum, 44, Dayton That already exists, to a certain degree. Some things already can be measured in the blood without a needle. The little clip they put on your finger at the doctor can measure oxygen in the blood as well as pulse. We are continually designing more blood-measuring devices like this. There have also been improvements in electronics and optics, and they’re getting cheaper. Advancing algorithms and smart phones are improving the data processing involved in blood tests. What's more, our medical understanding of what we want to measure is evolving, too. In 20 years, half or more of the current blood draws won’t be needed.

— Steve Risser, research leader and current Inventor of the Year, Battelle


"I could probably invent the flying car." — Greg Betz, 6, Cincinnati This idea has been very popular in science fiction movies for ages — and a few demonstrations of the flying car concept already have been made! But the flying car is not on (or off, rather) the road yet because current technology cannot make it practical enough for its commercialization. A flying car consumes a lot of energy and is very expensive due to its low power-to-weight ratio during propulsion. A recent approach suggests in the near future passenger drones could be a plausible variation of the flying car.

— Jung-Hyun Kim, mechanical and aerospace engineering assistant professor, Ohio State


"Smart groceries would track your shopping habits and automatically deliver food so that your pantry and fridge are never anything less than perfectly stocked" — Leon Jiao, 21, Columbus Is that a new breed of on-demand milkmen and women knocking on your door? Companies such as Amazon, Walmart and Kroger are already working to expand their ability to deliver products directly to your home. All this will be driven by data collected by an ecosystem of interconnected smart appliances throughout your home. We are heading to a day when your phone will ask you to confirm an order to replenish a dwindling supply of food staples or the couple of ingredients you're missing from a Pinterest recipe for paella you've been planning to make. While the Bud Light Bud-e Fridge can already ensure you have enough beer for the next Buckeye football game, in-home technology combined with last-mile logistics will soon mean your kids will never be able to stand in front of an open refrigerator door and complain there's nothing to eat! That is, if you don’t mind your pantry keeping track of all those cookies you keep sneaking.

— Michael Knemeyer, logistics professor, Ohio State


"A food waste pipeline would divert uneaten food from restaurants and homes to homeless shelters, food banks or some other place where scraps could be re-purposed" — Iman Salih, 19, Hilliard The future is now! The Food Rescue US app seamlessly connects food donors, volunteer food rescuers and receiving agencies right here in Columbus. What about those food scraps that can’t be used by others? Consider connecting to one of the region’s professional composting services (such as Innovative Organics, Econopia or Price Farms Organics). Have an industrial amount of food scraps with nowhere to go? Try posting to the Ohio Materials Marketplace to see if someone in Ohio has a use for it.

— Brian Roe, agricultural, environmental and developmental economics professor, Ohio State


"The city would be overlaid with a metal grid system that hoverboards can glide over" — Brittany Jones, 25, Columbus Hoverboards have already been developed, but require expensive technology and a specialized “ground” in order to hover. Most people like the idea of hoverboards, but not so much that they’d be willing to pay many thousands of dollars for the equipment that they can only use in a few (if any) locations, especially when a standard skateboard fulfills 90 percent of the practical functions that a hoverboard might be used for and can go almost anywhere.

— Greg Busch, research scientist, Center for Automotive Research


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