ZME Science reports the latest trends and advances in science on a daily basis. We believe this kind of reporting helps people keep up with an ever-changing world, while also funneling inspiration to do better. But it can also be frustrating when you read about 44% efficiency solar panels and you can’t have them. Of course, this is a momentary time lapse as the wave of innovation travels from early adopters to mainstream consumers. The first fully functional digital computer, the ENIAC, was invented in 1946, but it wasn’t until 1975 that Ed Roberts introduced the first personal computer the Altair 8800. Think touch screen tech is a new thing? The first touch screen was invented by E.A. Johnson at the Royal Radar Establishment, Malvern, UK, around 1965 – 1967. In the 80s and 90s, some companies like Hewlett-Packard or Microsoft introduced several touch screen products with modest commercial success. It wasn’t until 2007 when Apple released the first iPhone that touch screen really became popular and accessible. The list could go on.
The point I’m trying to make is that all the exciting stuff we’re seeing coming out of cutting-edge labs around the world will take time until they mature and become truly integrated in society. It’s the bubble stage, and for some the bubble will pop and the tech won’t survive. Other inventions and research might re-surface many decades from now. So, what’s the future going to look like ten years from now? What’s the next big thing? It’s my personal opinion that given the current pace of technological advancement, this sort of estimates is very difficult if not impossible to make. As such, here are just a few of my guesses as to what technology – some new, other improved versions of what’s already mainstream today – will become an integral part of society in the future.
The next five years
A hot trend right now is integrating technology into wearable devices. Glasses with cameras (Google Glass) or watches that answer your phone calls (Apple Watch) are just a few products that are very popular right now. Industry experts believe we’re just scratching the surface, though. Thanks to flexible electronics, clothing will also house computers, sensors or wireless receivers. But most of these need to connect to a smartphone to work. The real explosion of wearable tech might happen once these break free and work independently.
“Smart devices, until they become untethered or do something interesting on their own, will be too complicated and not really fulfill the promise of what smart devices can do,” Mike Bell, head of Intel’s mobile business, said. “These devices have to be standalone and do something great on their own to get mass adoption. Then if they can do something else once you pair it, that’s fine.”
Internet of Things
In line with wearable devices is the Internet of Things – machines talking to one another, with computer-connected humans observing, analyzing and acting upon the resulting ‘big data’ explosion. Refrigerators, trashcans, and even toasters could be computerized and, most importantly, networked. One of the better-known examples is the Nest thermostat. This Wi-Fi-connected thermostat allows you to remotely adjust the temperature via your mobile device and also learns your behavioral patterns to create a temperature-setting schedule. Nest was acquired by Google for $3.2 billion in 2014. Another company, SmartThings, which Samsung acquired in August, offers various sensors and smart-home kits that can monitor things like who is coming in and out of your house and can alert you to potential water leaks, to give homeowners peace of mind. Fed by sensors soon to number in the trillions, working with intelligent systems in the billions, and involving millions of applications, the Internet of Things will drive new consumer and business behavior the likes we’ve yet to see.
Big data and Machine Learning
Big data is a hyped buzz word nowadays that’s used to describe massive sets of both structured and unstructured data which are hard to process using conventional database techniques. Big data analytics can reveal insights hidden previously by data too costly to process, such as peer influence among customers revealed by analyzing shoppers’ transactions, social and geographical data. With more and more information being stored online, especially once the internet of things and wearable tech explode, the world will soon reach an overload threshold. Shifting through this massive volume is thus imperative, and this is where machine learning comes in. Machine learning doesn’t refer to household robots, though. Instead, it’s a concept much closer to home. For instance, your email has a spam folder where e-mail that fit a certain pattern are filtered through by an algorithm that has learned to classify “spam” and “not spam”. Similarly, your Facebook feed is filled with posts from your closest friends because, similarly, an algorithm has learned what are your preferences based on your interactions – likes, comments, shares, clickthroughs.
Where big data and machine learning meet, an informational revolution awaits and there’s no field where the transforming potential is greater than medicine. Doctors will be aided by smart algorithms that mine their patient’s dataset, complete with previous diagnoses or genetic information. The machine would go through the vast records and correlate with medical information. For instance, a cancer patient might come in for treatment. The doctor would then be informed that since the patient has a certain gene or set of genes a customized treatments would apply. Amazing!
You might have heard of Bitcoin, but it’s not alone. Today, there are thousands of cryptocurrencies. Unlike government-backed currencies, which are usually regulated and created by a central bank, cryptocurrencies are generated by computers that solve a complex series of algorithms and rely on decentralized, peer-to-peer networks. If these were just a fad a few years ago, things are a lot serious now. Shortly after Bitcoin’s creation, one user spent 10,000 Bitcoin for two pizzas. Today, that would be worth about $8m.
There’s much debate surrounding cryptocurrency. For instance, because it’s decentralized and anonymous Bitcoin has been used and is used to fund illegal activities. Also, there’s always the risk of a computer crash erasing your wallet or a hacker ransacking your virtual vault. Most of these concerns aren’t all that different to traditional money, though, and with time cryptocurrencies could become very secure.
In 2012, California was the first state to formally legalize driverless cars. The UK is set to follow this year. Some 1.2 million people worldwide die in car accidents every year. Tests so far have shown that these are very safe and should greatly reduce motor accidents. In fact, if all the cars on a motorway were driverless and networked, then theoretically no accident should ever occur. Moreover, algorithms would make sure that you’d get the best traffic possible as mathematical functions would calculate what velocity a car should go relative to one another such that the whole column would move forward at maximum speed. Of course, this would mean that most people would have to give up driving which isn’t an option among those who enjoy it. Even so, you could drive to work alone in the car without a driver’s license. “Almost every car company is working on automated vehicles,” says Sven Beiker, the executive director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford.
A 3-D printer reads every slice (or 2D image) of your virtual object and proceeds to create the object blending each layer together with no sign of the layering visible, resulting in a single 3-D object. It’s not exactly new. Companies, especially in the R&D or automotive business have been using 3D printers to make molds and prototypes for more than two decades. What’s new is how this technology has arrived to the common folk. Nowadays, you can buy a decent 3D printer for less than $600. With it, you can print spare parts for your broken machines, make art, whatever. You don’t even have to know how to design. Digital libraries for 3D parts are growing rapidly and soon enough you should be able to print whatever you need. The technology itself is also advancing. We’ve seen 3D printed homes, cars or ears, and this is just the beginning. Scientists believe they can ultimately 3D print functioning organs that are custom made for each patient, saving millions of lives each year.
The roots of virtual reality can be traced to the late 1950s, at a time when computers where confined Goliaths the size of a house. A young electrical engineer and former naval radar technician named Douglas Engelbart saw computers’ potential as a digital display, and laid the foundation for virtual reality. Fast forward today and not that much has become of VR, at least not the way we’ve seen in movies. But if we’re to try on the proverbial VR goggles what insight into the future might they grant? Well, you’d see a place for VR that goes far beyond video games, the king Oculus Rift taunts to. Multi-player VR provides the foundation by which a class of students can go on a virtual tour of the Egyptian pyramids or a group of friends can watch the latest episode of “Game of Thrones” together or the elderly can experience what it is like to share a visit with their grandkids who may be halfway around the world. Where VR might be most useful is not in fabricating fantasies, but enriching reality by connecting people like never before. It’s terribly exciting.
It is 10 years since the human genome was first sequenced. In that time the cost per person has fallen from $2.7bn to just $5,000! Raymond McAuley, a leading genomics researcher, predicted in a lecture at Singularity University’s Exponential Finance 2014 conference that we will be sequencing DNA for pennies by 2020. When sequencing is applied to a mass population, we will have mass data, data that will reveal who knows what.
The next ten years
There is increasing optimism that nanotechnology applied to medicine and dentistry will bring significant advances in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease. Many researchers believe scientific devices that are dwarfed by dust mites may one day be capable of grand biomedical miracles.
Donald Eigler is renowned for his breakthrough work in the precise manipulation of matter at the atomic level. In 1989, he spelled the letters IBM using 35 carefully manipulated individual xenon atoms. He imagines one day “hijacking the brilliant mechanisms of biology” to create functional non-biological nanosystems. “In my dreams I can imagine some environmentally safe virus, which, by design, manufactures and spits out a 64-bit adder. We then just flow the virus’s effluent over our chips and have the adders attach in just the right places. That’s pretty far-fetched stuff, but I think it less far-fetched than Feynman in ’59.”
Angela Belcher is widely known for her work on evolving new materials for energy, electronics and the environment. W. M. Keck Professor of Energy, Materials Science & Engineering and Biological Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Belcher believes the big impact of nanotechnology and nanoscience will be in manufacturing -– specifically clean manufacturing of materials with new routes to synthesis of materials, less waste, and self-assembling materials. “It’s happening right now, if you look at the manufacturing of certain materials for, say, batteries for vehicles, which is based on nanostructuring of materials and getting the right combination of materials together at the nanoscale. Imagine what a big impact that could have in the environment in terms of reducing fossil fuels. So clean manufacturing is one area where I think we will definitely see advances in the next 10 years or so.”
David Awschalom is a professor of physics, electrical, and computer engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara. A pioneer in the field of semiconductor spintronics, in the next decade or two, Awschalom would like to see the emergence of a genuine quantum technology. “I’m thinking about possible multifunctional systems that combine logic, storage, communication as powerful quantum objects based on single particles in nature. And whether this is rooted in a biological system, or a chemical system, or a solid state system may not matter and may lead to revolutionary applications in technology, medicine, energy, or other areas.”
ZME Science never backed down from praising graphene, the one atom thick carbon allotrope arranged in a hexagon lattice – for good reasons too. Here are just a few highlights we’ve reported: it can repair itself; it’s the thinnest compound known to us; the lightest material (with 1 square meter coming in at around 0.77 milligrams), the strongest compound discovered (between 100-300 times stronger than steel and with a tensile stiffness of 150,000,000 psi); the best conductor of heat at room temperature (at (4.84±0.44) × 10^3 to (5.30±0.48) × 10^3 W·m−1·K−1); best conductor of electricity (studies have shown electron mobility at values of more than 15,000 cm2·V−1·s−1). It can be used to make anything from aircraft, to bulletproof vests ten times more protective than steel, to fuel cells. It can also be turned into an anti-cancer agent. Most of all, however, its transformative potential is greatest in the field of electronics, where it could replace poor old silicon which is greatly pressed by Moore’s law.
Reading all this, it’s easy to hail graphene as the wonder material of the new age of technology that is to come. So, what’s next? Manufacturing of course. The biggest hurdle scientists are currently facing is producing bulk graphene that is pure enough for industrial applications; all of course at a feasible pricing. Once this is settled, who knows what will happen.
After Neil Armstrong’s historic moonwalk, the world went drunk with dreams of conquering space. You must have seen or heard about ‘prophecies’ made during those times of how the world might look like in the year 2000. No, we don’t have moon bases, flying cars or cured cancer – yet. In time, the interest for manned space exploration dwindled, something that can be unfortunately seen in NASA’s present budget. Progress has still been made, albeit not at the pace some might have liked. The International Space Station is a fantastic collaborative effort which is now nearing two decades of continued manned operation. Only two years ago, NASA landed the Curiosity rover which is currently roaming the Red Planet and relaying back startling facts about our neighboring planet. By all signs, men will walk on Mars and when this happens, as with Armstrong before, a new rejuvenated wave of enthusiasm for space exploration will ripple society. And ultimately, this will be consolidated with a manned outpost on Mars. I know what you must be thinking, but if we’re to lend our ears to NASA officials this target isn’t that far off in time. By all accounts, it will most likely happen during your lifetime.
Beginning in 2018, NASA’s powerful Space Launch System rocket will become operational, testing new abilities for space exploration, like a planned manned landing on an asteroid in 2025. Human missions to Mars will rely on Orion and an evolved version of SLS that will be the most powerful launch vehicle ever flown. Hopefully, NASA will fly astronauts to Mars (marstronauts?) sometime during the 2030s. Don’t get your hopes up too much for Mars One.
It has been demonstrated for more than a century, most famously by the great Tesla during his famous lectures. The scientist would hang up a light bulb in the air and it would light up – all without any wires! The audience was dazzled every time by this performance. But this wasn’t any parlor trick; just a matter of current by induction. Basically, Tesla relied on sets of huge coils which generated a magnetic field, which induces a current into the light bulb. Voila! In the future, wireless electricity will be accessible to anyone, as easy as WiFi is today. Smartphones will charge in your pocket as you wander around, televisions will flicker with no wires attached, and electric cars will refuel while sitting on the driveway. In fact, the technology is already in place. What is required is a huge infrastructure leap. Basically, wirelessly charged devices need to be compatible with the charging stations and this requires a lot of effort from of both the charging suppliers and the device manufacturers. We’re getting there, though.
Nuclear fusion is essentially the opposite of nuclear fission. In fission, a heavy nucleus is split into smaller nuclei. With fusion, lighter nuclei are fused into a heavier nucleus.
The fusion process is the reaction that powers the sun. On the sun, in a series of nuclear reactions, four isotopes of hydrogen-1 are fused into a helium-4 with the release of a tremendous amount of energy. The goal of scientists for the last 50 years has been the controlled release of energy from a fusion reaction. If the energy from a fusion reaction can be released slowly, it can be used to produce electricity in virtually unlimited quantities. Furthermore, there’s no wastes to deal with or contaminants to harm the atmosphere. To achieve the nuclear fusion dream, scientists need to overcome three main constraints: temperature (you need to put in a lot of energy to kick off fusion; helium atoms need to be heated to 40,000,000 degrees Kelvin – that’s hotter than the sun!), time (charged nuclei must be held together close enough and long enough for the fusion reaction to start) and containment (at that temperature everything is a gas, so containment is a major challenge).
Though other projects exist elsewhere, nuclear fusion today is championed by the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project, founded in 1985, when the Soviet Union proposed to the U.S. that the countries work together to explore the peaceful applications of nuclear fusion. Since then, ITER has ballooned into a 35-country project with an estimated $50 billion price tag. Key structures are still being built at ITER, and when ready the reactor will stand 100 feet tall and weigh 23,000 tons, and its core will be hotter than the sun. Once turned on, hopefully, successfully, the ITER could solve the world’s energy problems for the next 30 million years, and help save the planet from environmental catastrophe.