innovators offer glimpse into tomorrow's world

As science fiction becomes science fact, Lothian firms are at the cutting edge of technological developments . . .

TALKING houses, cars that drive themselves and artificial human organs sound like the stuff of science fiction.

But these could soon be part of everyday life, according to scientists at some of Edinburgh's leading technology companies, which are already breaking new ground in fields ranging from alternative energy to medicine.

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Next week, visitors will have the chance to learn more about developments at the Edinburgh First, part of the Science Festival.

Barry Shafe, the project director, explains: " It's a very exciting time – technology is changing the way we live at a faster pace than ever before.

"Big issues today include climate change, disease control and global food supply. It's both exciting and reassuring that so many innovators in these fields are to be found right here in Edinburgh."

So what can we expect to be part of our homes and our day-to-day lives in the future, according to our Edinburgh experts?

Anthony Ashbrook

Chief executive of technology firm Mobile Acuity

Walking down the supermarket aisles, your mobile phone picks out items from your shopping list, and reminds you you're running out of milk.

As you point it at a CD cover, it pops up a review and a sample of one of the tunes. Sounds good – but you also notice you could buy it cheaper on the internet.

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Outside in the streets, you call up a map of the area – projected on the lens of your glasses – and information on when the next bus is due.

Our mobiles will be used for far more than calls and text messages, according to Anthony. He predicts they will be able to access a vast amount of information just by pointing at objects.

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He says: "Essentially the real world and the digital world are becoming seamless. The phone is like a window to give us information about the world. For example, you could just point at a street, and the phone would help you navigate around the city.

"People are already very comfortable using their mobile phones, and how we communicate is changing. There's a lot more shared information. You could broadcast holiday videos to friends as you're taking them."

But he admits that changes will depend on what users want. He believes the keyboard is unlikely to go, and no one single device will replace a desktop computer, laptop and phone.

He says: "We're not very far away from cars that can drive themselves. It's more about the psychology of the people using them, and whether they are comfortable with it."

Matthew Aylett

Chief technical officer for CEREPROC

"Please shut my door!" pipes up the fridge, while the vacuum cleaner scoots around the living room.

Talking kitchens, cars with their own personalities and self-cleaning houses are not far away, believes Matthew, picture above.

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His company recently attracted worldwide publicity after giving film critic Roger Ebert his voice back, after he suffered throat cancer. They managed to construct a realistic simulation of his voice, meaning he could speak for the first time in several years.

Now Matthew says similar technology could soon be commonplace in the home. It will be far removed from the tinny voices we hear on automated call systems – your car could talk with a Cockney accent and sound tetchy if you start to lose concentration.

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He says: "It's already quite easy to duplicate people's voices. You could have a personality in the car. Although I'm not sure how far people want to take it – they might not like to phone up their bank and hear a sad voice when their balance was low.

"As people get older, they want to stay in their own homes. But relatives often worry if they've left the gas on, or remembered to eat lunch or take their pills. You could have an intelligent house that automatically reminds you.

"The best technology you don't notice – you don't want to know your car has computer-controlled brakes, but you'll notice the difference."

Of course, a talking home is no substitute for actual contact with friends and family, but Matthew says it could be an invaluable tool. Voice imitation software could also be used to create "talking photographs" – for example for children whose parents are soldiers overseas.

He says: "It's not a replacement – it's the equivalent of a teddy bear or a picture you can talk to."

Stuart Mead

Chief executive of Touch Bionics

WHETHER deftly catching a ball, or manoeuvring a steering wheel, there is little to tell a bionic hand from the real thing.

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Even when you look closely at the replacement hands developed by Touch Bionics, every vein and freckle looks a perfect match.

The West Lothian company is the world leader in creating prosthetic hands and fingers to replace those lost through trauma, disease or birth defects. It has already made a huge difference to amputees who have been able to continue their working lives.

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In the future, Stuart says artificial eyes, ears, and even hearts and livers are likely to become reality. This could address the serious shortage of donor organs. The technology will also become cheaper and more widely available.

Stuart says: "Our hands are one of the most versatile parts of our bodies. To be able to replace them after an accident or disease is a wonderful thing, and very important from the psychological point of view.

Touch's bionic hands have individually powered digits. When a person loses a hand, the brain still imagines there is a "phantom hand" and the technology can pick up the signals sent to it.

Stuart says: "The technology is moving at an incredible rate.

There could be bionic hearts to support patients while they're waiting for a transplant. I think there will always be a shortage of donor organs, but I think eventually we will be able to produce artificial ones."

Rob Speight

Operations director for Ingenza, an industrial biotechnology company

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THE petrol car will soon be a thing of the past, according to Rob. He predicts oil is likely to run out within the next 50 years, and he is busy developing alternatives.

Biofuels are already used as part of a petrol, but soon most cars will be running on alternative fuels. Instead of using oil to make plastics, they could be grown in laboratories, and used for everything from plastic bags to carpets.

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The Scottish coast could be an ideal location for algae-farms, growing an alternative to diesel.

Rob says: "We've already started using biofuels, but we'll be looking to increase this and over time the processes will become more efficient.

"I think there will be a range of alternatives for our energy needs. In Scotland we have great potential for wind and wave power. It's all about creativity and thinking about what's local and what's available."

Edinburgh First takes place at Appleton Tower, Edinburgh University, on 13 April at 6pm. Tickets at