Sometimes we don’t really know a technology until it hits us in the face daily. It was only a handful of years ago when G.P.S. was still just another mystery acronym to most. So what else is out there that we might hear of in the future? Here’s an ordered list of just a few of my favourites from hundreds of emerging technologies break through now or still to come.
Note: Shown Time frames (a-b-c) represents;
(a) lab testing (working in a lab somewhere);
(b) usable commercial development (being sold commercially business to business);
(c) consumer maturity (when the majority of consumers are somehow using it or benefiting from it as part of their everyday lives).
In random order:
1. Smart Dust
Imagine scattering a dust-like substance over a large area to find out more about it. Perhaps on crops, a hazardous wasteland or into a weather system. The difference is that this dust is actually made of tiny networked robots packed with sensors which able to feedback real time information on their environment. Perhaps one day smart dust will be in your garden telling you why your grass is looking a little brown in places and when the geraniums need fertiliser.
Time frame (0-10-20 years) More here.
2. Programmable Matter
Programmable matter is the broad field subject areas in which atoms or molecules can rearrange themselves to a desired state. We are starting to see smart substances which can self heal like the G-Flex phone from LG above but the aspirations of programmable matter go much further. Programmable matter might in the future be able to self replicate which has huge implications for everything from medicine to manufacture. (Also see Utility Fog below)
Time frame (0-0-15 years) More here
Starlite is a substance shrouded in mystery and controversy. First demonstrated in the 70’s, its inventor Maurice Ward claimed to have created the perfect fire-resistant material. Indeed the anecdotal evidence is compelling – it has survived a nuclear blast, and amazing videos show it to repel heat like water from a teflon pan (see clip below). The problem – the inventor never commericalised it through fear of his IP being stolen. He died in 2011 without ever revealing how it was made. Many are angry at him given it could have saved thousands of lives (eg: imagine houses in bush fire areas being painted in it), others claim the substance was great for lab tests, but not viable for commercial use. At this point the recipe lies with family members .Whether or not we will ever see it re-emerge is another question. However the likelihood is that with research in meta materials and equivalent or better may not be too far off.
Touted as the next big thing since Silicon, Graphene (a substance discovered in 2004) has amazing properties and is already in use commercially. A sheet of graphene is only one atom high. It is amazingly tiny,strong, flexible, transparent, light, a super conductor. It promises to revolutionise everything from solar power, water purification, electronic displays, batteries, cancer therapy and faster computers. I’ll be writing a lot about Graphene in the future it is a very important substance that will impact us all.
Time frame (0-0-12 years). More here.
5. Quantum Computing
Is already here (caveat – this is in hot debate as I write this). Google and Nasa share a DWave quantum computer. Existing computers use the state 1 or 0 to process information which outputs a single predictable linear outcome each time. The difference with quantum computing is that in quantum physics the state of 1 and 0 can exist at the same time meaning that multiple outcomes can be calculated simultaneously. No wonder the NSA is alleged to be using quantum computing to break modern encyption. The promise for the rest of us is that we can expect faster breakthroughs in places where hard to solve mathematical, science or big data problems exist (like medicine/human genome) but there’s little or no consumer benefit to our every day technology.
Time frame (0-0-20 years)
6. 3D Bioprinting
Standard 3D printing has become fairly mainstream news in the last 2 years but bio-printing takes this to another level allowing organic cells to be printed to form three dimensional objects. In laymans terms we are talking about printing spare body parts for people. This area is already moving quickly. The early work on livers and ears have been demonstrated, and there is little more than the ethical debate and testing to get in the way.
Timeframe (0-1-8 years)
7. The Electronic Nose
The least utilised of all our senses will soon receive a boost. An electronic nose is able to sense in a similar way to our own noses, sniffing out trace amounts of a substance in the air but using super sensitive sensors. Nasa have been using this technology for a few years on the space station – it’s so good it can tell the difference between coke and pepsi. For consumers, expect to see this in smartphones within the decade. It will sniff out your illnesses, spot unhealthy bacteria in your salad, and tell you how good your wine is. A truly disruptive technology.
Metamaterials allow the science of invisibility to become a genuine possibility. Meta (Greek word for beyond) materials are manufactured materials which have properties not present in nature. Invisibility has already been demonstrated at a small scale in a lab and scientists are pretty excited about something previously thought impossible. Several companies already claim to have working prototypes (you can Google these). The broader field of metamaterials might provide wallpaper and windows which offer perfect sound insulation in your noisy apartment. More here.
Timeframe (0-5-15 years)
9. Designer smart food
For decades people have talked about the ‘meal in a pill’. Recently Soylent a kickstarter project raised $755k for the project that allows people to live ‘without food’; a soupy-goo containing all the nutrients a body needs with nothing else required. Whilst soylent is a one stop fits all, we can expect to see custom designed goo that works for a persons individual body based on science rather than guesswork. Maybe 3D printers will turn a soupy mush into more edible looking and familiar products.
Time frame (3-5-10)
10. Energy Harvesting
The concept of energy harvesting is that there is plenty of power already around us (light, ambient radiation, magnetic, microwaves etc) waiting to be used without having to rely on external power. The trick is getting enough of it to be useful and reliable. We all know about solar and wind energy, but there’s a lot more interesting tech on the way which will allow us to realise the dream of grid parity.
Here’s a video of a light switch with no batteries or power doing a pretty good job controlling devices around it.
Time frame (0-0-4)
11. Space Elevators
It would be remiss of me not to include something a little sci-fi-ish but the theory behind a space elevator is quite real. If you ever wondered why the space shuttle can’t lower a rope from space and pull stuff up, there are several reasons (ie; the rope would snap under its own weight and/or pull the shuttle back down). The concept of a space elevator was popularised by Arthur C Clarke in 1970 – basically you have a base in geostationary orbit, a vertical railway attached to earth and importantly a large object further out in space to anchor it all nicely. There are two main obstacles that have prevented the building of a space elevator. Firstly the right material – needs to be very light and strong. Solution: Carbon nanotubes. Secondly the anchor; – we would need to capture and place a small asteroid – and that’s where this story really begins read more here.
Time frame (15-35-50)
12. Utility Fog
Not quite what it sounds and I’m putting this last because it is probably one of the more theoretical. If you’ve been watching the US TV show Revolution, you’ll already be familiar with invisible air bound technology (Nanites). Utility fog (a subset of programable matter) is the idea that tiny nano robots in the air around you (or stored nearby) can organise and arrange themselves rapidly to create a physical substance in the air. Imagine utility fog replacing the air bags in your car so that as you crash you become surrounded by a foam like structure. Chairs and tables appear and disappear on command. It might even let you float in the air. Timeframe (30-50 years) More here
And here’s the bonus thirteenth one we don’t want to see:
13. Grey Goo
Grey Goo is an Apocalypse scenario. When all the nanotech we created becomes capable of replication and loses its core programming, it will likely devour all forms of carbon life, turning everything (including us) into a big sloppy goo.