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The best new technologies (probably) arriving in 2016

We sort the fluff from the futuristic. 

Predicting successful new technologies is a risky business - for every iPad or lightbulb, there's also a portable travel hammock or an Apple Newton. With that caveat in mind, we've collected together a list of the technologies that we think will make a splash next year, and even, in a few cases, change the way we live. 

Solar panel phone screens

I've been predicting that these will be A Big Deal for over a year, and have partly included them because I just think they're really cool. But as with many new technologies, several sets of researchers are currently working to make transparent solar panels better and cheaper, which means that next year could be the year consumers finally get hold of them. Once on the market, they could invisibly collect solar power on phone and computer screens, and even on windows. 

A robot to schedule your meetings

Artificial Intelligence still can't have a totally convincing chat with us, but it's now sophisticated enough to carry out online customer service, and, as it turns out, be your personal assistant. New app x.ai lets you email "Amy" about a meeting you want to set up, and she liases with you and the other person to find a time that works. 

Control your computer using gestures 

Earlier this year, Apple patented a motion-sensor technology that would let you control your computer by just moving your hands in the air. The technology has been around for a while - HP's Leap Motion laptop was launched in 2012 - but as we spend more and more time in front of computers, it's growing ever more appealling. RIP RSI. 

A hotel in space 

Russian company Orbital Technologies reckons it'll be sending tourists into space as early as next year. Guests would zoom up to the Commercial Space Station on a rocket, then spend their time in one of the station's four cabins enjoying zero gravity and watching earth through the ship's giant portholes. And this is only the beginning: Mashable has totted up nine commercial companies planning to send normal people into space over the next decade or so. 

Self-driving cars

Google's self-driving car. Image: Getty.

Yes, they've been around for ages, but now we have on-the-road testing and the beginnings of a legislative framework for the cars, they could soon be an everyday reality. Google has announced it's teaming up with Ford to build self-driving vehicles, hinting at large-scale commercial production in the near future. 

...and cars that make you better at driving 

Audi's Q7 SUV. Image: Audi.

While self-driving cars are grabbing the headlines, ordinary cars are also stepping up their game. Tesla's latest in-car software offers a hands-free autopilot mode, while Audi's Q7 SUV will also brake on behalf of the driver and nudge you back into the correct lane. This type of gradual automation may make fully self-driving cars an easier sell in the long run. 

The suncream pill 

Fish and coral both excrete a compound that protects them from the sun, and for the past five years or so scientists have been working to use these substances in a pill which, when consumed by humans, would offer the same protection. If it works, it could cut rates of sunburn and skin cancer, and spare you from endless bouts of greasy reapplication. 

An end to language barriers

Messaging and voice call service Skype recently released a live translation tool, Japan is trialling a live translation megaphone to use during the 2020 Olympics, and Google's Translate app translates street signs and real-time conversations. It looks like technology may finally be breaking down the final barrier in worldwide communication. 

Zero-carbon fuel made of carbon dioxide 

Improbable as it sounds, a few different companies have developed working prototypes which turn carbon dioxide into a fuel. All rely on sucking CO2 out of the air, then converting it into a diesel fuel, which, amazingly, emits no carbon when burned.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”