We live in an era of accelerating change. Technology is changing and innovating faster than most of us can keep up. And at the same time, it's easy to get so caught up in shiny visions of the future, and not notice the astounding things that are happening in science and technology today. So the next time people ask you where the future went, tell them it's already here.
Here are nine underrated or overlooked technologies that could transform the world before you know it.
Top image composed by Dylan Cole.
Most of us know about DNA sequencing — but you probably don't realize just how fast and cheap it's getting. In fact, some experts suggest that it's following along a Moore's Law of its own. As Adrienne Burke has pointed out, the speed of genome sequencing has better than doubled every two years since 2003 — back at a time when it cost $3.8 billion (i.e. the Human Genome Project). Today, thanks to advances in such things as nucleic acid chemistry and detection, a company like Life Technologies can process DNA on a semiconductor chip at a cost of $1,000 per genome. Other companies can sequence an entire genome in one single day. And the implications are significant, including the advent of highly personalized medicine in which drugs can be developed to treat your specific genome. Say goodbye to one-size-fits-all medicine.
The idea of digital currency is slowing starting to make the rounds, including the potential for Bitcoin, but what many of us don't realize is that's it's here to stay. Sure, it's had a rough start, but once established and disseminated, electronic cash will allow for efficient and convenient online exchanges — and all without the need for those pesky banks. Despite the obvious need for a distributed digital currency protocol, the adoption rate has been relatively slow. Barriers to entry include availability (it's in limited supply), the cryptography problem (the public still needs to be assured that it's secure), the establishment of a recognized and trustworthy dispute system (sensing some opportunities here), and user confidence (a problem similar to the one that emerged when paper money first emerged).
Back in 1971, University of California at Berkeley professor Leon Chua predicted a revolution in electrical circuits — and his vision has finally come true. Traditionally, circuits are constructed with capacitors, resistors, and inductors. But Chua speculated that there could be a fourth component, what he called the memristor (short for memory resistor). What sets this technological innovation apart is that, unlike a resistor, it can "remember" charges even after power is lost. As a result, this would allow the memristor to store information. This has given rise to the suggestion that it could eventually become a part of computer memory — including non-volatile solid-state memory with significantly greater densities than traditional hard drives (as much as one petabit per cm3). The first memristor was developed in May 2008 by HP, who plan on having a commercial version available by the end of 2014. And aside from memory storage, memristors could prove useful in signal processing, neural networks, and brain-computer interfaces.
Today we have robots that can self-replicate, re-assemble after being kicked apart, shape-shift, swarm, create emergent effects, build other robots, slither like a snake, jump to the tops of buildings, walk like a pack mule, and run faster than a human. They even have their own internet. Put it all together and you realize that we're in the midst of a robotic revolution that's poised to change virtually everything.
Imagine being able to turn all our garbage into something useful like fuel. Oh wait, we can do that. It's called "energy recovery from waste" — a process that typically involves the production of electricity or biofuels (like methane, methanol, ethanol or synthetic fuels) by burning it. Cities like Edmonton, Alberta are already doing it — and they're scaling up. By next year, Edmonton's Waste-to-Biofuels Facility will convert more than 100,000 tons of municipal solid waste into 38 million litres of biofuels annually. Moreover, their waste-based biofuels can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 60% compared to gasoline. This largely overlooked revolution is turning garbage (including plastic) into a precious resource. Already today, Sweden is importing waste from its European neighbors to fuel its garbage-to-energy program.
Though we're in the midst of the biotechnology revolution, our attention tends to get focused on such things as stem cells, tissue engineering, genome mapping, and new pharmaceuticals. What's often lost in the discussion is the fact that we already have the ability to go directly into our DNA and swap genes at will. We can essentially trade bad genes for good, allowing us to treat or prevent diseases (such as muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis) — interventions that don't require drugs or surgery. And just as significantly, gene therapy could eventually give rise genetic enhancements (like increased memory or intelligence) and life extension therapies. Gattaca is already here, it just hasn't been distributed yet.
The discovery of RNA interference (RNAi) was considered so monumental that it won Andrew Fire and Craig C. Mello the Nobel Prize back in 2006. Similar to gene therapy, RNA interference allows biologists to manipulate the functions of genes. It works by using cells to shut-off or turn down the activity of specific genes, and it does this by destroying or disrupting messenger molecules (for example by preventing mRNA from producing a protein). Today, RNAi is being used in thousands of labs. It's becoming an indispensable research tool (to create novel cell cultures), it has inspired the creation of algorithms in computational biology studies, and it holds tremendous potential for the treatment of diseases like cancer and Lou Gehrig's disease.
Traditionally, our visions of cybernetics and the cyborg is one in which natural, organic parts have been replaced with mechanical devices or prostheses. The notion of a half-human, half-machine has very much become ingrained in our thinking — but it's likely wrong. Thanks to the rise of the nascent field of organic electronics, it's more likely that we'll rework the body's biological systems and introduce new organic components altogether. Already today, scientists have engineered cyborg tissue that can sense its environment. Other researchers have invented chemical circuits that can channel neurotransmitters instead of electric voltages. And as Mark Changizi has suggested, future humans will continue to harness the powers of their biological constitutions and engage in what Stanislas Dehaene calls neuronal recycling.
A recent innovation in solar power technology is starting to take the world by storm, though few talk about it. It's called concentrated solar power (CSP), and it's a massively distributed system for extracting solar energy with mirrors and lenses. It works by focusing the incoming sunlight into a highly concentrated area. The result is a highly scalable and efficient energy source that is allowing for gigawatt sized solar power plants. Another similar technology, what's called concentrated photovoltaics, results in concentrated sunlight being converted to heat, which in turn gets converted to electricity. CPV plants will not only solve much of the world's energy needs, it will also double as a desalination station.
Images: Alila Sao Mai/shutterstock , BitCoin , IEEE Spectrum/R. Stanley Williams , City of Edmonton , somersault18:24/Shutterstock , Medgadget , AlphaGalileo Foundation , Desertec .