A lot can happen in a single year, especially in this era of accelerating technological and social change. Here are the most futuristic developments of 2013.
1. Humanity officially became an interstellar species: It took Voyager I 36 years to do it, but the little spacecraft-that-could officially pierced through the heliosphere back in July. The probe is now 12 billion miles (19 billion kilometers) from our sun. "Voyager has boldly gone where no probe has gone before, marking one of the most significant technological achievements in the annals of the history of science, and adding a new chapter in human scientific dreams and endeavors," said John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for science in Washington. "Perhaps some future deep space explorers will catch up with Voyager, our first interstellar envoy, and reflect on how this intrepid spacecraft helped enable their journey."
2. Radical life extension went mainstream: Back in September, Google announced Calico, a company that will focus on health and well-being. But its ultimate purpose is to radically extend the human lifespan. As TIME put it, "That would be crazy — if it weren't Google." By launching Calico, Google CEO Larry Page hopes to tackle some of health care's most pressing problems. And by virtue of doing so, the company hopes to be a major player — if not the major player — in the burgeoning efforts to slow down, or even halt, the aging process in humans.
3. Brain-to brain interfaces arrived: Researchers demonstrated that signals from the mind of one rat can help a second rat solve basic puzzles in real time — even when separated by thousands of miles.
And in a separate development, scientists created an interface that allows humans to move a rat's tail with their thoughts.
The interface could conceivably connect two humans — what's called neural coupling —for therapeutic purposes (like helping people relearn how to use previously paralyzed limbs), or applications in which humans voluntarily couple themselves and move each other's body parts.
4. The first functional 3D printed handgun: The controversial group Defense Distributed successfully tested the firearm at a firing range south of Austin, Texas — and then promptly released the downloadable blueprints online. Called the "Liberator," it took a year to develop. In response, anti-gun campaigners condemned the project, while a number of law enforcement agencies began monitoring developments.
5. An unmanned aircraft landed on an aircraft carrier: Landing the U.S. Navy's X-47B wasn't cheap or easy. Dubbed "Salty Dog," it has been in training to accomplish such a feat for years now, and the program has cost the government over $1.4 billion. "Your grandchildren and great grandchildren, and mine, will be reading about this historic event in their history books," Rear Admiral Mat Winter told the press ahead of the landing. "This is not trivial."
6. Germany became the first country to recognize a third gender: As of last November, German parents were able to select male, female, or "indeterminate" when filling out their newborn's birth certificate. Parents no longer have to label their baby's gender, thereby allowing those born with intersex characteristics to make a decision later in life. Or not.
7. The world's first government-recognized cyborg: Neil Harbisson became the first person on the planet to have a passport photo showing his true cyborg nature. In his UK passport, Harbisson can be seen wearing a head-mounted device called an eyeborg. The color-blind artist says the device allows him to see color, and he wants to help other cyborgs like himself gain more rights.
8. Chimpanzees were named as plaintiffs in a historic personhood case: The Nonhuman Rights Project filed lawsuits in the state of New York on behalf of four captive chimpanzees seeking legal personhood status. The lawsuits failed, but it's considered the beginning of what will most assuredly be a long and difficult process to grant sapient animals the right to bodily autonomy.
9. The world's first carbon nanotube computer: It's only got 178 transistors, but it's an important proof-of-concept that's poised to keep Moore's Law right on track. The breakthrough, in which a basic computer was powered by microscopic chains of carbon atoms, means we may have finally found a viable alternative to silicon chips.
10. The death of privacy: Thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know the NSA and British intelligence have been wiretapping millions of innocent citizens. As Snowden recently said, "A child born today will not know privacy." It's a development that's eerily reminiscent of a prediction Neal Stephenson made in his 2011 spy novel, Reamde — and another step closer to a Brinesque surveillance society.
12. Biologists created an 'elixir' that reverses a known cause of aging: After administering a new compound to 2-year old mice, their muscles reverted back to 6-month levels. That's like regenerating the muscles of a 60-year old human to those of a 20-year old. The new drug improved muscle wastage, restored mitochondrial function and communication, and improved inflammation and insulin resistance. And incredibly, human trials may start next year.
13. The first net-positive nuclear fusion reaction is recorded: In order for fusion power plants to be feasible, they have to produce more energy than they consume. It's a challenge that's confounded scientists for years. But researchers at the National Ignition Facility made it happen. During an experiment in September, the amount of energy released through a fusion reaction exceeded the amount of energy being absorbed by the fuel. It's the first time this has been achieved at any fusion facility in the world.
14. Scientists created a cybernetic implant that repairs brain damage and a bioengineered patch that regrows damaged bones inside the body.
15. The world's first mind-controlled exoskeleton: MindWalker is an exoskeleton that will soon enable paralyzed and locked-in people to walk using only their minds. The groundbreaking device, which is currently under review by the European Commission, consists of three main elements: The exoskeleton itself, a virtual-reality user interface, and the mind-reading component.
16. We took a significant step closer to human cloning after deriving stem cells from cloned human embryos.
And in unrelated research, scientists also learned that mammals can reproduce entirely by cloning; researchers in Japan produced 26 successful generations of cloned mice from a single individual — for a total of 598 mice, all of whom are essentially genetic duplicates. The breakthrough shows that mammalian cloning lines can be extended and reproduced without limit.
17. We saw some incredible — and downright frightening — new robots over the past year, including ATLAS, PETMAN, and WildCat. Quadcopters were also big news this year; they were showed-off as delivery drones, given eagle-like talons, and controlled by human thought. Oh, and robots can now collaborate over their very own internet.
18. And last but not least — because you've all been asking for it — a functional flying car that actually looks pretty cool.