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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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...