Technologies that Could Change the World, Part 1

Stephen DeAngelis

November 8, 2012

Bryan Nelson, from Revmodo.com, a “leading green technology site [that] serves up the latest in clean energy innovation, science, and health,” recently penned an article in which he identifies nine technologies he believes are going to change the world. [“9 Future Technologies that Will Change the World,” ecorazzi, 15 October 2012] Although Nelson’s headline claims that these are “future technologies,” most of them exist today in one form or another. The nine technologies are: atmospheric energy; nanotechnology; augmented reality; solar fuel; engineered stem cells; wireless energy transfer; space-based solar energy; quantum teleportation; and artificial intelligence. Nelson’s point is that many of these technologies do not yet play as significant a role in individual lives as they will in the decades ahead. In this post, I’ll discuss the first five technologies. In a follow-up post, I discuss the remaining four. Here’s what Nelson writes about the first technology: atmospheric energy.

 

Atmospheric Energy

 

“Most of the energy we produce today comes from finite resources – namely, fossil fuels. But as those resources become exhausted – and as the environmental consequences of exhausting them become an increasing concern – developing new, renewable sources of energy will be paramount. Of course, industries such as wind, solar, and biofuel are already booming; but those are just the tip of the iceberg. One burgeoning renewable source that has the power to revolutionize the production of electricity is atmospheric energy. There is always free electricity in the air and clouds all around us. This is most evident in a thunderstorm or during the polar auroras, such as the Northern Lights. Capturing and controlling this electricity can be a challenge, but if we could tap directly into the Earth’s own electrical field – to quite literally pluck electricity from the air – the potential for the technology to contribute to our energy mix is great.”

Although calling industries such as wind, solar, and biofuel “booming” might be a bit of hyperbole, those technologies are certainly more mature than the field of atmospheric energy. I agree with Nelson, however, that fielding technologies that take advantage of unseen natural resources all around could be a boon to society. Back in 2006, I wrote a post that talked about a DARPA project that created “a machine that can produce water ‘out of thin air’ in almost any environment.” [see Water, Water Everywhere] Projects like these certainly do have the potential to change people’s lives; especially in remote areas where linking to electrical or water grids is prohibitively expensive. Concerning his next technology — nanotechnology — Nelson writes:

 

Nanotechnology

 

“Sometimes it’s the smallest things that make the biggest impacts. That’s certainly the case with nanotechnology, which is essentially the manipulation of materials on the atomic and molecular levels. The many applications of nanotech are almost too many to count. Nanoelectronics have the potential to revolutionize computing, not only by making computing speeds faster, but by making electronic devices smaller. Machines the size of cells may one day navigate through our bodies like artificial immune systems. Nano devices may one day be able to manipulate our genetic code– or perhaps even merge with it. Nanotechnology will allow us to invent new materials with a vast range of applications– everything from better-flying golf balls to more effective sunscreens.”

Scientists working at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center recently reported progress in a nanotube “chip-making technology that is likely to ensure that the basic digital switch at the heart of modern microchips will continue to shrink for more than a decade.” [“I.B.M. Reports Nanotube Chip Breakthrough,” by John Markoff, New York Times, 28 October 2012] But as Nelson states, nanotechnologies have applications in a broad spectrum of areas. Nanoparticles have been shown to increase the efficiency of biofuels. Carbon nanotubes can make desalination processes more efficient. Carbon nanotubes and copper nanowires can be used in a number of manufacturing processes. And a “nano-brick” film has been shown that it can be used in packaging to ensure that perishable foods last longer. Nelson is correct when he implies that we haven’t even begun to discover all of the ways that nanotechnology will make our lives better. Concerning his next technology — augmented reality — Nelson writes:

 

Augmented Reality (AR)

 

“A lot of hubbub was made over the recent release of Google Glasses, but even if the invention might seem silly now, the technology behind it– augmented reality–has the potential to radically alter our world and how we interact with it. You’ve heard of virtual reality, which is a computer simulated environment. Augmented reality, on the other hand, is a fusion of computer-generated sensory input with the real world. Rather than create a simulated world, augmented reality has the power to actually enhance our perception of the real world. The technology also has the potential to make it possible to control information in the world, and in real time, much like you can currently control information using a touchscreen device. Basically, augmented reality brings us one step closer to fusing our technology with reality, such that technology and reality may one day be pragmatically indistinguishable.”

Graeme Philipson, editor of ExchangeDaily, report that “retailers now perceive AR as a key means of increasing engagement with consumers, both as a means of providing additional product information or in the form of branded virtual games and activities.” [“Augmented reality is coming to your smartphone,” ITWire, 7 November 2012] Physically challenged individuals might also benefit from augmented reality technologies that help them better navigate an increasingly congested world. A recent article reported that a German research center, the Fraunhofer Center for Organics, Materials and Electronic Devices in Dresden, are developing augmented reality glasses similar to Google’s glasses that “frees up wearers’ hands by allowing them to turn virtual pages using their eyes alone.” [“New Technology Allows You To Turn The Page With A Glance,” by the staff at TechNewsDaily, Business Insider, 6 November 2012] Concerning his next technology — solar fuel — Nelson writes:

 

Solar Fuel

 

“As said already, the development of renewable energy will be paramount as we move into the future. Technologies like wind, solar and hydro already present excellent ways of producing renewable electricity, but what about producing fuel? Biofuels have been useful for this purpose, but many biofuels also have the negative impact of competing for agricultural space with our food supply. But what if we could somehow convert solar energy directly into a liquid fuel? That’s the idea behind the development of solar fuel– a fuel that can be produced with technology that mimics how plants produce energy through photosynthesis. A solar fuel would also revolutionize how renewable energy is stored. Essentially, it would allow us to keep the sun’s energy in liquid form. One company working to make this vision possible is Joule. Their technology is capable of creating a fuel using only sunlight, carbon dioxide and non-potable water as inputs. They also believe they will soon be able to produce this fuel at a price competitive with gasoline.”

The drawback to this technology, of course, is that it requires water (even though it is non-potable). Water has often been mentioned as source of future conflict in the years ahead. Any technology that requires vast amounts of water to be successful is likely to face significant hurdles getting to market. On the bright side, if this technology could be perfected and the cost of desalination decreases significantly, turning sunlight into liquid fuel in really significant quantities could help slow rising sea levels. Concerning his next technology — engineered stem cells — Nelson writes:

 

Engineered Stem Cells

 

“Few technologies have the power to transform medicine more than the engineering of stem cells. Not only have stem cells been genetically programmed to attack diseases like HIV or cancer, but stem cells are now being used to generate living tissue. The ultimate goal of such a technology would be for regrowing replacement organs. Once perfected, it may be possible to extend human life indefinitely. Imagine if each of your organs could simply be replaced, like a car part, any time it began to malfunction.”

The implications of extending human life indefinitely are profound. There is not enough room in this post for such a discussion. For a few thoughts on the subject, see Ker Than’s article entitled “Toward Immortality: The Social Burden of Longer Lives.” [Live Science, 22 May 2006] Even if replacement organs are perfected, replacement costs will remain high — too high for most of the world’s population.

 

The fact of the matter is that cost is going to affect how deeply and how quickly all of these technologies penetrate the marketplace. Of the technologies discussed so far, only nanotechnology has proven its value. Nelson reports, “As of 2008, over 800 nanotech products had already been made publicly available, and new products were hitting the market at a pace of 3-4 a week.”