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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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The Tinder dating app isn't just about sex – it's about friendship, too. And sex

The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, as I found out quickly while using the app.

The first time I met someone using Tinder, the free dating app that requires users to swipe left for “no” and right for “yes” before enabling new “matches” to chat, it was an unqualified success. I should probably qualify that. I was newly single after five years in a committed relationship and wasn’t looking for anything more than fun, friendship and, well, who knows. A few weeks earlier I had tried to give my number to a girl in a cinema café in Brixton. I wrote it on a postcard I’d been using as a bookmark. She said she had a boyfriend, but wanted to keep the postcard. I had no date and I lost my page.

My Tinder date was a master’s student from Valencia called Anna (her name wasn’t really Anna, of course, I’m not a sociopath). When I arrived at the appointed meeting place, she told me I was far more handsome IRL (“in real life”) than my pictures suggested. I was flattered and full of praise for the directness of continental Europeans but also thought sadly to myself: “If only the same could be said about you.”

Anna and I became friends, at least for a while. The date wasn’t a success in the traditional sense of leading us into a contract based on exclusivity, an accumulating cache of resentments and a mortgage, but it had put me back in the game (an appropriate metaphor – people speak regularly of “playing” with the app).

According to Sean Rad, the co-founder who launched Tinder in late 2012, the service was invented for people like me. “It was really a way to overcome my own problems,” he told the editor of Cosmopolitan at an event in London last month. “It was weird to me, to start a conversation [with a stranger]. Once I had an introduction I was fine, but it’s that first step. It’s difficult for a lot of people.” After just one outing, I’d learned two fundamental lessons about the world of online dating: pretty much everyone has at least one decent picture of themselves, and meeting women using a so-called hook-up app is seldom straightforwardly about sex.

Although sometimes it is. My second Tinder date took place in Vienna. I met Louisa (ditto, name) outside some notable church or other one evening while visiting on holiday (Tinder tourism being, in my view, a far more compelling way to get to know a place than a cumbersome Lonely Planet guide). We drank cocktails by the Danube and rambled across the city before making the romantic decision to stay awake all night, as she had to leave early the next day to go hiking with friends. It was just like the Richard Linklater movie Before Sunrise – something I said out loud more than a few times as the Aperol Spritzes took their toll.

When we met up in London a few months later, Louisa and I decided to skip the second part of Linklater’s beautiful triptych and fast-track our relationship straight to the third, Before Midnight, which takes place 18 years after the protagonists’ first meet in Vienna, and have begun to discover that they hate each others’ guts.

Which is one of the many hazards of the swiping life: unlike with older, web-based platforms such as Match.com or OkCupid, which require a substantial written profile, Tinder users know relatively little about their prospective mates. All that’s necessary is a Facebook account and a single photograph. University, occupation, a short bio and mutual Facebook “likes” are optional (my bio is made up entirely of emojis: the pizza slice, the dancing lady, the stack of books).

Worse still, you will see people you know on Tinder – that includes colleagues, neighbours and exes – and they will see you. Far more people swipe out of boredom or curiosity than are ever likely to want to meet up, in part because swiping is so brain-corrosively addictive.

While the company is cagey about its user data, we know that Tinder has been downloaded over 100 million times and has produced upwards of 11 billion matches – though the number of people who have made contact will be far lower. It may sound like a lot but the Tinder user-base remains stuck at around the 50 million mark: a self-selecting coterie of mainly urban, reasonably affluent, generally white men and women, mostly aged between 18 and 34.

A new generation of apps – such as Hey! Vina and Skout – is seeking to capitalise on Tinder’s reputation as a portal for sleaze, a charge Sean Rad was keen to deny at the London event. Tinder is working on a new iteration, Tinder Social, for groups of friends who want to hang out with other groups on a night out, rather than dating. This makes sense for a relatively fresh business determined to keep on growing: more people are in relationships than out of them, after all.

After two years of using Tinder, off and on, last weekend I deleted the app. I had been visiting a friend in Sweden, and took it pretty badly when a Tinder date invited me to a terrible nightclub, only to take a few looks at me and bolt without even bothering to fabricate an excuse. But on the plane back to London the next day, a strange thing happened. Before takeoff, the woman sitting beside me started crying. I assumed something bad had happened but she explained that she was terrified of flying. Almost as terrified, it turned out, as I am. We wound up holding hands through a horrific patch of mid-air turbulence, exchanged anecdotes to distract ourselves and even, when we were safely in sight of the ground, a kiss.

She’s in my phone, but as a contact on Facebook rather than an avatar on a dating app. I’ll probably never see her again but who knows. People connect in strange new ways all the time. The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, but you can be sure that if you look closely at the lines, you’ll almost certainly notice the pixels.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad