Editorial: Technology like you've never seen

So much in science fiction has become science fact, from space travel and satellites to robots and the mobile phone.

But there are a few recurring fictional themes that still elude science: time travel, teleportation and invisibility are the top three.

If the laws of physics allow, they will be the ultimate in disruptive technologies. The mobile phone means you don't have to set a time and place to meet your mate for a drink in advance anymore - just text on the night. And the Internet gives you some funny videos to watch at lunchtime and might make your Christmas shopping easier. But think what it would mean if you could instantly pop over the other side of the world, or go back in time to meet your parents as teenagers. Or, in the case of invisibility, observe unobserved anything you wanted - even your partner discussing you with his or her friends.

The technology to make things or people invisible features in everything from HG Wells to 'Star Wars'. As a consumer technology, it might need some tough regulation. But fear not. In our cover feature, Sian Harris explains that this is one technology, in the good old-fashioned way, that will find its first use in defence applications rather than games consoles or another consumer gadget.

In some ways, we have been making things and people disappear for over a hundred years. Man-made camouflage is a surprisingly recent invention, with the British Army first wearing khaki in the 1880s. Natural selection has been developing it for millions of years though and has come up with some surprising techniques. Black and white stripes don't make the zebra completely invisible but they do make it harder for a lion to spot them through a heat haze and across the plain. The brightly painted dazzle ships of the First World War (do an Internet image search if you've never seen them) are just as surprising a technique of camouflage as the zebra's stripes.

Ingenious as these are, the term 'invisibility' usually means more than something that is just hard to see because it's cleverly camouflaged or because it's dark. It implies a technology that makes it impossible to see something.

Any state's military that can get this technology in the field first will obviously have a clear stealth advantage. "I never even saw him coming, Sarge."

Things get even more absurd if we imagine that both sides on a battlefield have the technology. Would they just be wandering around, blindly bumping into each other?

Blindly is the word, because to see light, it must be absorbed by the retina, which would make at least the pupils visible. "Don't shoot till you see the whites of their eyes," would have to be revised.

I bet our politicians haven't even begun to think about this issue. Typical. Government must open its eyes to the invisibility menace and legislate, regulate before it's too late.

Don't say you didn't see it coming!

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