Gizmag is an online magazine that “covers invention, innovation, and emerging technologies in all fields of human endeavor – everything from computing, communication and automation, through social innovation, new ideas, inventions, and services to enhance life, work and play for people of all ages.” Since it casts such a wide net, it is an interesting source of ideas as well as a technology barometer that helps indicate where things might be heading. Despite the fact that Gizmag reporters cover a broad range of topics, Noel McKeegan singled-out six areas for special attention in his review of 2011 technological advances: transistors, synthetic fuels, search for extra-terrestrial life, artificial intelligence, solar polar, and materials engineering. [“A year in technology,” 3 January 2012] McKeegan writes:
“We cast a wide net over all types of new and emerging technologies here at Gizmag.com – some save us time, some keep us connected, some help us stay healthy and some are just plain fun, but at the core of what we cover are those discoveries and innovations which have the potential to impact the fortunes of the human race as a whole and make a difference to the future of our planet. So with the calendar having rolled over into another year, it’s an ideal time to take a look back at some of the most significant and far-reaching breakthroughs that we saw during 2011.”
The first area he discusses is transistors, the small devices that “form the foundation of a world awash with electronic devices.” He continues:
“Although [transistors] have shrunk dramatically, their design has not changed radically since they were first introduced decades ago. That all changed in 2011 with Intel announcing the mass production of its revolutionary Tri-Gate 3-D transistor. Intel says that adding a third dimension to the design will result in transistors that are up to 37 percent faster than those used in the current 32 nm process, use half the active power and add only around 3 percent to production costs. In contrast, Intel’s first processor – the 4004 – which was introduced in 1971, ran 4,000 times slower and used 5,000 times more energy.”
I believe you can call Intel’s design a breakthrough. Simultaneously increasing speed by a third and reducing power usage by half at minimal cost is very impressive. In the era of Big Data, some analysts have expressed concern about the power necessary to maintain the data centers that are necessary to store and analyze all of the data that we are now creating. Breakthrough’s like this one will go a long way towards keeping those concerns in check. The next area McKeegan discusses is synthetic fuels. He writes:
“A huge number of renewable energy breakthroughs caught our attention throughout the year and notable among those are developments that could lead to a viable alternative to petroleum-based fuels. Early in the year Cella Energy announced that it has developed hydrogen-based micro-beads that can be used to run existing vehicles without engine modification and could ultimately lead to a synthetic fuel that costs as little as US$1.50 per gallon. Notable announcements were also made by researchers from the University of Minnesota who are using two types of bacteria to create hydrocarbons from sunlight and carbon dioxide, and University of Michigan scientists who have developed a new process for extracting biofuel from algae.”
I have noted repeatedly in the past that two types of energy sources have defined development and economic progress in the post-steam era: oil and electricity. Electricity is a sine qua non for development while oil has been the foundation of transportation systems. I’ll discuss more about the generation of electricity below. Although the synthetic fuel research discussed above will have an impact on individuals, it will have an even greater impact on industry and supply chains. Resources and products will still have to be transported in a post-oil world that could emerge as early as next century. Having alternatives to oil available so that the global economy can continue to grow will be critical. It is not too early to begin perfecting those alternatives. The next technology discussed by McKeegan is the search for extra-terrestrial life. Although that is a fascinating subject, it’s a bit far afield from the technologies I cover in this blog. The fourth subject he covers is artificial intelligence. He writes:
“Androids, cyborgs, thinking machines – whatever they end up being called or form they take, non-human entities that are capable of human-like thought are on the way, and artificial intelligence will have a profound impact on our lives in coming decades. During the past year we have seen several discoveries that advance the goal of reverse engineering the human brain – researchers from the University of Southern California announced the creation of a functioning synapse circuit using carbon nanotubes that could someday be one component of a synthetic brain, while over at Caltech, scientists unveiled a DNA-based artificial neural network that could have huge implications for the development of true artificial intelligence. Working with more conventional computing hardware, researchers at MIT have developed a computer chip that mimics the ‘plasticity’ of the brain’s neural function and IBM has been experimenting with a computer chip designed to emulate the human brain’s abilities for perception, action and cognition. Finally – and this one gets our vote for the most sci-fi AI breakthrough of the year – scientists from Israel’s Tel Aviv University have restored brain function to a rat by replacing its disabled cerebellum with a synthetic one.”
Advances in artificial intelligence are critical for helping us make sense of the mountains of data that we are now accumulating. AI systems will be able to learn and adapt and cooperate. They will provide both scientists and businesses with new insights. To read more about this topic, see my post entitled Artificial Intelligence and the Era of Big Data. McKeegan next discusses the area of solar power. He writes:
“The search for viable alternatives to fossil fuels that can satisfy growing worldwide energy demand is a constant feature in these pages, and 2011 has again thrown up an array of new developments in this area. In particular we’ve seen some significant breakthroughs in the solar field that have put this technology on the cusp of becoming mainstream. … We’ve … witnessed an increasing focus on large scale solar power generation with, for example, the 19.9 MW Gemasolar Concentrated Solar Power plant in Spain achieving a full 24 hours of solar power production, Enviromission detailing plans for a massive solar energy generator in Arizona and internet giant Google investing US$168 million in the world’s largest solar power tower plant that is to be built in the Mojave Desert in California. Finally, in a taste of more to come, scientists have made breakthroughs in CIGS solar cell efficiency, crept closer to cost effective full spectrum solar cells, developed virus-boosted photovoltaics and made big advances in spray on solar technology … and these developments are just a small sample of the progress being made in the solar cell field.”
Unfortunately, this past year was better known for the bad news in the solar power sector than for the breakthroughs. For example, the failure of Solyndra, a California solar company backed by 500 million dollars in U.S. government loan guarantees, probably made the most news.
The final technology sector discussed by McKeegan is materials engineering — specifically breakthroughs in materials that be used makes things appear invisible. He writes:
“Invisibility is a notion that’s been with us for a very long time … Harry Potter and Bilbo Baggins weren’t even close to the first fictional characters to pull off a disappearing act. Plato made reference to the Ring of Gyges in his Republic almost two and a half thousand years ago and ever since then writers have been fascinated by magical objects that can make the wearer disappear from sight. Although personal invisibility cloaks remain in the realm of science-fiction, real science is catching up with advances in the application of metamaterials. This class of artificially engineered materials has a weird light bending property called a negative refractive index that makes it possible for objects (on a microscopic scale) to become invisible in specific wavelengths of light, but as we discovered in 2011, it’s not just invisibility cloaking that stands to benefit from this field of research. These new frontiers for the application of metamaterials include wireless charging, optical transmission of information and the reduction of drag on ships’ hulls. Rather than cloaking objects, metamaterials could also be used to hide a singular event in time. This ‘temporal cloaking’ has been demonstrated by researchers at Cornell University who were able to conceal a burst of light as if it had never occurred. Scientists from the California Institute of Technology have also developed a new type of negative-index metamaterial that can handle light of any polarity, from any angle, and works in the blue part of the visible spectrum, which could lead to more efficient solar cell designs.”
One of the wonderful things about science and innovation is that no one really knows how a specific technology is going to be put to use once it has been developed. Creative people, having different perspectives and needs from those who produced a technology, will always find new uses for technologies beyond those imagined by inventors.
McKeegan admits that his short list of technologies “doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface when it comes to the vast array of research that’s going on in different scientific fields around the world.” He concludes:
“Significant advances are constantly being made in battery technology, medicine, telecommunications and construction, not to mention two of the biggies – genetics and nanotechnology – which will no doubt affect our lives in coming years.”
He’s right, of course. His short list of technologies that could affect our daily lives gives us only a taste of the remarkable things being explored and discovered by global researchers and innovators. At a time when the world seems to be caught in an economic morass, it’s good to remind ourselves that a better world is coming and that we should be a lot more optimistic about the future than we are right now.