Emerging Technologies For The Future

Tiny sensors that can connect to the web...

Technology is perhaps the greatest agent of change in the modern world. While never without risk, technological breakthroughs promise innovative solutions to the most pressing global challenges of our time. From batteries that can provide power to whole villages to microchips that could take the place of organs in medical research, this year’s 10 emerging technologies offer a vivid glimpse of the power of innovation to improve lives, transform industries and safeguard our planet.

The Internet of Things (IoT), built from inexpensive microsensors and microprocessors paired with tiny power supplies and wireless antennas, is rapidly expanding the online universe from computers and mobile gadgets to ordinary pieces of the physical world: thermostats, cars, door locks, even pet trackers. New IoT devices are announced almost daily, and analysts expected to up to 30 billion of them to be online by 2020.

The explosion of connected items, especially those monitored and controlled by artificial intelligence systems, can endow ordinary things with amazing capabilities—a house that unlocks the front door when it recognizes its owner arriving home from work, for example, or an implanted heart monitor that calls the doctor if the organ shows signs of failing. But the real Big Bang in the online universe may lie just ahead.

Scientists have started shrinking sensors from millimeters or microns in size to the nanometer scale, small enough to circulate within living bodies and to mix directly into construction materials. This is a crucial first step toward an Internet of Nano Things (IoNT) that could take medicine, energy efficiency, and many other sectors to a whole new dimension.

Some of the most advanced nanosensors to date have been crafted by using the tools of synthetic biology to modify single-celled organisms, such as bacteria. The goal here is to fashion simple biocomputers that use DNA and proteins to recognize specific chemical targets, store a few bits of information, and then report their status by changing color or emitting some other easily detectable signal. Synlogic, a start-up in Cambridge, Mass., is working to commercialize computationally enabled strains of probiotic bacteria to treat rare metabolic disorders. Beyond medicine, such cellular nanosensors could find many uses in agriculture and drug manufacturing.

Many nanosensors have also been made from nonbiological materials, such as carbon nanotubes, that can both sense and signal, acting as wireless nanoantennas. Because they are so small, nanosensors can collect information from millions of different points. External devices can then integrate the data to generate incredibly detailed maps showing the slightest changes in light, vibration, electrical currents, magnetic fields, chemical concentrations and other environmental conditions.

The transition from smart nanosensors to the IoNT seems inevitable, but big challenges will have to be met. One technical hurdle is to integrate all the components needed for a self-powered nanodevice to detect a change and transmit a signal to the web. Other obstacles include thorny issues of privacy and safety. Any nanodevices introduced into the body, deliberately or inadvertently, could be toxic or provoke immune reactions. The technology could also enable unwelcome surveillance. Initial applications might be able to avoid the most vexing issues by embedding nanosensors in simpler, less risky organisms such as plants and non-infectious microorganisms used in industrial processing.

When it arrives, the IoNT could provide much more detailed, inexpensive, and up-to-date pictures of our cities, homes, factories—even our bodies. Today traffic lights, wearables or surveillance cameras are getting connected to the Internet. Next up: billions of nanosensors harvesting huge amounts of real-time information and beaming it up to the cloud.

Making large-scale power storage possible...

Solar and wind power capacity have been growing at double-digit rates, but the sun sets, and the wind can be capricious. Although every year wind farms get larger and solar cells get more efficient, thanks to advances in materials such as perovskites, these renewable sources of energy still satisfy less than five percent of global electricity demand. In many places, renewables are relegated to niche roles because of the lack of an affordable, reliable technology to store the excess energy that they make when conditions are ideal and to release the power onto the grid as demand picks up. Better batteries could solve this problem, enabling emissions-free renewables to grow even faster—and making it easier to bring reliable electricity to the 1.2 billion people who currently live without it.

Within the past few years, new kinds of batteries have been demonstrated that deliver high enough capacity to serve whole factories, towns, or even “mini-grids” connecting isolated rural communities. These batteries are based on sodium, aluminium or zinc. They avoid the heavy metals and caustic chemicals used in older leadacid battery chemistries. And they are more affordable, more scalable, and safer than the lithium batteries currently used in advanced electronics and electric cars. The newer technology is much better suited to support transmissions systems that rely heavily on solar or wind power.

Fluidic Energy announced an agreement with the government of Indonesia to deploy 35 megawatts of solar panel capacity to 500 remote villages, electrifying the homes of 1.7 million people. The system will use Fluidic’s zinc-air batteries to store up to 250 megawatthours of energy in order to provide reliable electricity regardless of the weather. In April, the company inked a similar deal with the government of Madagascar to put 100 remote villages there on a solar-powered mini-grid backed by zinc-air batteries.

For people who currently have no access to the grid—no light to work by at night, no Internet to mine for information, no power to do the washing or to irrigate the crops—the combination of renewable generation and grid-scale batteries is utterly transformative, a potent antidote for poverty. But better batteries also hold enormous promise for the rich world as it struggles to meet the formidable challenge of removing most carbon emissions from electricity generation within the next few decades—and doing so at the same time that demand for electricity is growing.

The ideal battery is not yet in hand. The new technologies have plenty of room for further improvement. But until recently, advances in grid-scale batteries had been few and far between. So it is heartening to see the pace of progress quickening.

A revolutionary decentralized trust system...

Blockchain–the technology behind the bitcoin digital currency–is a decentralized public ledger of transactions that no one person or company owns or controls. Instead, every user can access the entire blockchain, and every transfer of funds from one account to another is recorded in a secure and verifiable form by using mathematical techniques borrowed from cryptography. With copies of the blockchain scattered all over the planet, it is considered to be effectively tamper-proof.

The challenges that bitcoin poses to law enforcement and international currency controls have been widely discussed. But the blockchain ledger has uses far beyond simple monetary transactions. Like the Internet, the blockchain is an open, global infrastructure upon which other technologies and applications can be built. And like the Internet, it allows people to bypass traditional intermediaries in their dealings with each other, thereby lowering or even eliminating transaction costs.

By using the blockchain, individuals can exchange money or purchase insurance securely without a bank account, even across national borders—a feature that could be transformative for the two billion people in the world currently underserved by financial institutions. Blockchain technology lets strangers record simple, enforceable contracts without a lawyer. It makes it possible to sell real estate, event tickets, stocks, and almost any other kind of property or right without a broker.

The long-term consequences for professional intermediaries, such as banks, attorneys and brokers, could be profound— and not necessarily in negative ways, because these industries themselves pay huge amounts of transaction fees as a cost of doing business. Analysts at Santander InnoVentures, for example, have estimated that by 2022, blockchain technology could save banks more $20 billion annually in costs.

Some 50 big-name banks have announced blockchain initiatives. Investors have poured more than $1 billion in the past year into start-ups formed to exploit the blockchain for a wide range of businesses. Tech giants such as Microsoft, IBM and Google all have blockchain projects underway. Many of these companies are attracted by the potential to use the blockchain to address the privacy and security problems that continue to plague Internet commerce.

Because blockchain transactions are recorded using public and private keys—long strings of characters that are unreadable by humans—people can choose to remain anonymous while enabling third parties to verify that they shook, digitally, on an agreement. And not just people: an institution can use the blockchain to store public records and binding promises. Researchers at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., for example, have shown how drug companies could be required to add detailed descriptions of their upcoming clinical drug trials to the blockchain. This would prevent the companies from later moving the goalposts if the trial did not pan out as anticipated, an alltoo- common tactic. In London, mayoral candidate George Galloway has proposed putting the city’s annual budget on the blockchain ledger to foster collective auditing by citizens.

Perhaps the most encouraging benefit of blockchain technology is the incentive it creates for participants to work honestly where rules apply equally to all. Bitcoin did lead to some famous abuses in trading of contraband, and some nefarious applications of blockchain technology are probably inevitable. The technology doesn’t make theft impossible, just harder. But as an infrastructure that improves society’s public records repository and reinforces representative and participatory legal and governance systems, blockchain technology has the potential to enhance privacy, security and freedom of conveyance of data—which surely ranks up there with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

“Wonder materials” are becoming increasingly affordable...

New materials can change the world. There is a reason we talk about the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Concrete, stainless steel, and silicon made the modern era possible. Now a new class of materials, each consisting of a single layer of atoms, are emerging, with far-reaching potential. Known as two-dimensional materials, this class has grown within the past few years to include lattice-like layers of carbon (graphene), boron (borophene) and hexagonal boron nitride (aka white graphene), germanium (germanene), silicon (silicene), phosphorous (phosphorene) and tin (stanene). More 2-D materials have been shown theoretically possible but not yet synthesized, such as graphyne from carbon. Each has exciting properties, and the various 2-D substances can be combined like Lego bricks to build still more new materials.

This revolution in monolayers started in 2004 when two scientists famously created 2-D graphene using Scotch tape—probably the first time that Nobel-prize-winning science has been done using a tool found in kindergarten classrooms. Graphene is stronger than steel, harder than diamond, lighter than almost anything, transparent, flexible, and an ultrafast electrical conductor. It is also impervious to most substances except water vapor, which flows freely through its molecular mesh.

Initially more costly than gold, graphene has tumbled in price thanks to improved production technologies. Hexagonal boron nitride is now also commercially available and set to follow a similar trajectory. Graphene has become cheap enough to incorporate it in water filters, which could make desalination and waste-water treatment far more affordable. As the cost continues to fall, graphene could be added to road paving mixtures or concrete to clean up urban air—on top of its other strengths, the stuff absorbs carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides from the atmosphere.

Other 2-D materials will probably follow the trajectory that graphene has, simultaneously finding use in high-volume applications as the cost falls, and in high-value products like electronics as technologists work out ways to exploit their unique properties. Graphene, for example, has been used to make flexible sensors that can been sewn into garments—or now actually 3-D printed directly into fabrics using new additive manufacturing techniques. When added to polymers, graphene can yield stronger yet lighter airplane wings and bicycle tires.

Hexagonal boron nitride has been combined with graphene and boron nitride to improve lithium-ion batteries and supercapacitors. By packing more energy into smaller volumes, the materials can reduce charging times, extend battery life, and lower weight and waste for everything from smart phones to electric vehicles.

Whenever new materials enter the environment, toxicity is always a concern. It’s smart to be cautious and to keep an eye out for problems. Ten years of research into the toxicology of graphene has, so far, yielded nothing that raises any concerns over its effects on health or the environment. But studies continue.

The invention of 2-D materials has created a new box of powerful tools for technologists. Scientists and engineers are excitedly mixing and matching these ultrathin compounds—each with unique optical, mechanical and electrical properties—to produce tailored materials optimised for a wide range of functions. Steel and silicon, the foundations of 20th-century industrialization, look clumsy and crude by comparison.

Self-driving cars coming sooner than expected...

The rise of the automobile transformed modern society. It changed where we live, what we buy, how we work, and who we call friends. As cars and trucks became commonplace, they created whole classes of jobs and made other professions obsolete.

We are now on the cusp of an equally transformative technological shift in transportation: from vehicles driven by humans to vehicles that drive themselves. The longterm impact of autonomous vehicles on society is hard to predict, but also hard to overstate. The only certainty is that wherever this technology becomes ubiquitous, life will be different than it was.

Google and other companies have been testing self-driving cars for several years now, with good success. These autos process vast amounts of sensory data from onboard radars, cameras, ultrasonic range-finders, GPS, and stored maps to navigate routes through ever more complex and rapidly changing traffic situations without any human involvement.

Consumer use of vehicles with autonomous capabilities, however, is just beginning. Adoption will proceed gradually, through the steady implementation of increasingly intelligent safety and convenience features in otherwise ordinary cars. Some models, for example, already offer hands-off parallel parking, automatic lane-keeping, emergency braking, or even semi-autonomous cruise control. Last October, Tesla Motors made available a software package that enables a limited form of self-driving operation for owners of its vehicles to download.

This trend is likely to continue as such technology matures and as legal and regulatory barriers start to fall. A halfdozen states have already authorized autonomous road vehicles, and more have plans to do so. Discussions are well underway among auto insurers and legislators about how to apportion liability and costs when self-driving cars get into crashes, as they inevitably will—although it is widely expected that these cars will prove to be much safer, on average, than driver-operated cars are today.

There is plenty of room for improvement on that front. In the United States, crashes and collisions claim more than 30,000 lives and cause some 2.3 million injuries annually. Self-driving systems may have bugs—the software that runs them is complicated—but they are free from the myriad distractions and risk-taking behaviors that are the most common causes of crashes today. In the near term, semiautonomous safety systems that engage only to prevent accidents, but that otherwise leave the driver in charge, will also likely reduce the human cost of driving significantly.

Far more profound transformations will follow once cars and trucks can be trusted to pilot themselves routinely—even with no one inside. Exclusive car ownership could then cease to be the necessity of modern living that it is today for so many people. Shared cars and driverless taxi and delivery services could become the norm. This transition might help the aged and infirm—an increasing fraction of the population—to “age in place” more gracefully. Shared programmable vehicles could reduce the need for local parking structures, reduce congestion by preventing accidents and enabling safe travel at higher speeds and closer following distances, and unlock numerous secondary benefits.

Like every technology, autonomous vehicles will involve drawbacks as well. In some distant day, commercial driving may no longer be a sustainable career. Shared vehicles raise some thorny privacy and security concerns. In some regions, increased affordability of car access may greatly exacerbate traffic and pollution problems rather than easing them. But the many benefits of self-driving cars and trucks are so compelling that their widespread adoption is a question of when, not if.

To Be Continue...