By Scott Kriner, Green Metal Consulting
If you have been reading this monthly column, you may have noticed that I enjoy gazing into the future. The latest issue of MIT Technology Review did not let me down. In that publication they are highlighting top ten “breakthrough technologies” that will change the way in which we will see the world in the future, and how the world will work in the future. The futuristic technologies, according to MIT, apply to the medical field, genetics, communications, energy, space, and transportation. Here are summaries of these technologies for you to ponder.
Experts in the medical field are saying we are getting close to a cure for cancer. Today cancer treatment using a gene-editing method called “TALENs”or “T-cells” can alter the DNA in living cells. They become killer cells of the immune system. T-cells can be taken from a patient’s bloodstream and using a virus add new DNA instructions to aim them at the type of blood cell that causes leukemia. Advances in genetic engineering within the immune system, with hundreds of trials behind them, are now showing that these T-cells can be “programmed” to wipe out other forms of cancer. Could we see a cure for cancer in our lifetime?
Gene Editing In Plants
In the field of genetic engineering, a new gene editing method is being tested in plants to boost the yield and to resist drought and disease more effectively. The technology is referred as “CRISPR”. In China scientists have used this technology to create wheat plants that are resistant to fungus. The technique uses bacterial material that targets the genetic editing of the plant. The large food and seed companies such as DuPont Pioneer are already looking seriously at this technology. Could we feed the world’s population from areas that were once considered barren?
Breakthroughs in voice interfaces on mobile devises in China are paving the way for the next big change in cell phones and related mobile technology. Combining voice recognition technology with language differences is getting us closer to the concept of eliminating the fumbling of our fingers as we tap a small screen on our cell phones, which we all know can be frustrating and time consuming. In a world where smartphones are more common than desktops or laptop computers, experts in this field believe that voice recognition may soon be reliable enough for activating many types of communication devices - not just phones. Voice control has been under development for years, but it appears to be near a tipping point. Will we see a change in our electronic devices away from communicating with our thumbs?
The use of rockets to propel equipment, satellites, and other payloads into space has typically been done with rockets that are eventually destroyed as they re-enter Earth’s atmosphere or plummet into the ocean. This is an expensive way to put items into space. But last year, for the first time, a rocket was launched and returned upright to a landing pad. That technology has been pioneered by organizations like Blue Origin, Space X, and United Launch Alliance. This technique will significantly lower the cost of rocket flight, and could create many new opportunities and benefits for the use of rockets in space. Will we see commerce using rockets for shipping and delivery?
Robots Teaching Robots
Robots have been the delight of science fiction for many years. Recent breakthroughs show that robots can learn tasks and then send that knowledge to the cloud for other robots to access later. That alleviates the time now spent on programming robots separately. With a growing library of tasks, robots could handle millions of different tasks. The programming that is being used for this can allow the robot to refine the instructions that it is given and reply to the host robot to improve both machines. As advances in cloud-based technology take place, experts in this field believe that there will be an explosion in the knowledge and abilities of robots. Will we see robots taking over tasks that were once delegated only to humans?
DNA App Store
We are all interested in our ancestry. Now work is taking place on the first App store for genetic information. Our genes tell us whom we’re related to, our physical traits and our health risks. The new futuristic approach is a business model that would allow one to provide a DNA sample, analyze the genes and then provide the data to other software developers who would sell other Apps. First estimates of the cost for this are about $100 to de-code all of the genes in a customer. The genetic information would be available to consumers who would decide who could see it. Perhaps you’d want to know what you will look like in 20 years. This App concept would be able to provide that for you. Or what if you found out that you had an allergy that was unknown to you? How far will genetics and DNA become part of our information overload in the future?
Solar City’s Gigafactory
Solar power from photovoltaics (PV) is growing in many areas of the world. SolarCity is one of the larger manufacturers of solar panels. That company is in the process of building a facility in New York that will be capable of producing 10,000 panels a day. That’s the equivalent of 1 gigawatt per year. The facility will be the largest PV panel manufacturing facility in North America and one of the largest in the world. The plant will be vertically integrated through the manufacturing stages to the installation of the panels in the field. The process and more efficient equipment are expected to keep installed cost below $2.50 per watt by end of 2017. The unique composition of crystalline silicon, thin film cell, and other oxides in the solar panels allow their efficiency to exceed 22%, which is well above traditional solar panel efficiency. Keeping the installation step within the SolarCity company is expected to lower the installed cost for residential applications. Will solar power become as commonplace as TV satellite dishes on rooftops in the future?
We are all buried in emails in the office and in the car and everywhere in between. We can’t take a chance that we might miss an email. For many of us, emails can consume most of our time while in the office. So what if we had a centralized space for communication with our office colleagues? What if communication was more brief and casual like instant-messaging or chat rooms? This is exactly what is taking place with a system called SLACK. Since more people get their work done on mobile devices with people who are not always at the same office at the same time, SLACK directs messages into streams that everyone that works together can see. This reduces the clutter and time involved in sorting through all emails in one location. In the future can we envision a better way for office colleagues to stay connected other than with emails?
Driver-less automotive travel is the next frontier in automobile transportation. Some of the leading car manufacturers already have test driven cars that remain safe while requiring no driver. The Jetsons are here. Studies show that a car equipped with multiple ultrasonic sensors, cameras, high frequency sound waves and computers are significantly safer from a crash than a human being behind the wheel. Tesla has introduced cars that can manage its speed, steer within, changing lanes and park itself. The software is known as “Auto Pilot”. Google is testing in this arena with multiple test fleets. Tesla is using more widely distributed test fleet. The hardware for the autonomous Tesla car is already in place. In the near future we will likely be putting on make-up, shaving or reading a book on our way to work, feeling safer than when we are behind the wheel. Will we ever be comfortable in a moving vehicle without driving it ourselves?
Power From The Air
How often are we at an airport or on the road when we realize our cell phone is low on power and there is no charging station nearby? Wouldn’t it be great to be able charge up with no chords or hardware? Researchers at the University of Washington are developing a way for devices to be powered by energy harvested from nearby TV, radios, cell-phones, or Wi-Fi signals. Until recently, using this for cell phones has been difficult since generating radio signals requires power and telecommunicating devices hold low levels of energy. But now, with a technique known as back scattering, incoming radio waves construct a new signal which can power the devices. The technique is known as “passive Wi-Fi”. In tests, prototype passive Wi-Fi devices have sent data as far as 100 ft and showed that the signals can be made through walls. Researchers expect these passive Wi-Fi devices will cost less than a dollar in the near future. With our homes and offices becoming more “smart” with devices, sensors and cameras, the passive Wi-Fi devices could be used on devices such as smoke detectors and temperature sensors that may never need to have their batteries replaced. Can you imagine devices from within the home or office, and mobile telephones never needing re-charging or replacing batteries?
You may disagree that these ten technologies are the top ten leading us into the future. Perhaps you have other technologies in mind that will have an even greater impact on society in the future. One thing for certain is that technology will change the way we live in the foreseeable future. Let’s hope it is a change for the good.