10 technologies that really could change the world
23rd Jun 2013 | 11:00
Phone tracking, biohacking and alternatives to fracking
We're told that all kinds of technologies changed the world - Popular Mechanics' list includes the stapler - but today's researchers are working on ideas even more ambitious than joining several bits of paper together.
New technologies could replace fossil fuels, turn your house into a power station, save thousands of lives - and maybe even create new lifeforms.
Here are 10 technologies that have the potential to change the world all over again.
In developing countries the phone is more important than the PC: mobiles are used for banking, and for forecasting the weather (a critical business when a farmer has to pick the best time to sow or reap a precious crop). But phones can do even more.
For example, in Africa cell phone tower data is used to map people's movements - and that mapping can help track diseases such as malaria and identify patterns of transmission.
Phone location data might also be useful in dealing with natural disasters, improving public transport or just helping retailers make shopping malls more profitable.
2. Digital imaging
As imaging technology improves we'll see our world like never before, both outside and inside. DARPA recently showed off a 1.8 gigapixel surveillance drone that can watch 25 square kilometres at a time, while advances in medical imaging tech enable doctors to look inside patients with unprecedented levels of detail.
3. Better fibre-optic cables
Fibre-optic cabling has been around since the 19th century, but it wasn't until 1970 that the problem of attenuation - signals degrading over distance - was solved.
Since then fibre-optic has become part of the fabric of the internet, but it's a fabric that, for most people, stops long before it gets to their house.
When fibre broadband finally makes it into every home - which it will, albeit not until some of us are really, really old - it promises to revolutionise the way people use the internet all over again.
4. Mind-controlled prosthetics
DARPA calls it Targeted Muscle Re-innervation, or TMR for short. We call it astonishing: TMR makes brain-controlled prosthetic limbs almost as responsive as real ones, providing sensory feedback that enables prosthetic users to riffle through a bag or grab an object without having to look at it.
From electronic eyes to entire exoskeletons, the combination of serious technical talent and enormous piles of cash is bringing us ever closer to a cybernetic future.
5. 3D printing
3D-printed guns and drugs may get the headlines, but the real effect of 3D printing is likely to be less sensational and much more useful.
It's already helping to revolutionise manufacturing by slashing research and development costs, and in the longer term it might mean that instead of ordering online and waiting for couriers to deliver, we'll just print products at home - maybe even food.
That's good for the environment but could have disastrous consequences for many people's jobs.
6. Small, smart sensors
Research firm ON World reckons that in 2017, firms will ship some 515 million sensors for wearable, implantable or mobile health and fitness devices, and that's just the tip of an electronic iceberg.
7. Predictive policing
The row over the Prism surveillance system rumbles on, but there's no doubt that the technology to watch people's every move exists: one version, dubbed RIOT, mines public websites such as social networks to build up a surprisingly detailed picture of individuals and their likely future behaviour.
Another, PREDPOL, uses algorithms and mapping data to predict where and when crimes are likely to occur. Put them together, add a bit of Tom Cruise and you're getting awfully close to Minority Report-style policing where the cops turn up before the crime is committed.
8. Serious solar
Solar technology has been held back by several issues: solar panels are hefty, pricey, and of course they don't provide energy when it's dark. The biggest problem, though, is efficiency: as National Geographic reports, they only capture 10 to 20 percent of the sunlight that strikes them.
The future? Nanotech that makes the panels much less reflective, much cheaper to produce and much more efficient. Other ideas include tiny antennae on devices that capture solar energy and instantly convert it to power, solar panels that can actually store energy, and nanotech paint that turns entire buildings into solar energy collectors.
There's a controversy brewing on Kickstarter: the Glowing Plant project plans to engineer glow-in-the-dark plants, and some experts are worried: they fear that this is the thin end of a very big and scary wedge.
As Nature reports, "they fear that distributing the plants could set a precedent for unsupervised releases of synthetic organisms, and might foster a negative public perception of synthetic biology - an emerging experimental discipline that involves genetically engineering organisms to do useful tasks."
Biohackers could engineer entirely new lifeforms, good or bad, and the emerging sector is almost entirely unregulated. Friends of the Earth has called for a global moratorium on the release of synthetic organisms "until the proper regulations and safety mechanisms have been put in place".
10. Genetic scanning
The MyGenome iPad app is a glimpse of the future, enabling you to analyse the full genetic makeup of someone. For now that someone is the developers' CEO, but if DNA sequencing prices continue to plummet - the cost per person has dropped from US$2.7 billion to US$5,000 in ten years - then full genome analysis could be in many of our futures.
That could have profound implications: we could discover if we're prone to particular kinds of cancer, or if we have higher than average risks of various unpleasant conditions, or if particular drugs could kill rather than cure us.
Angelina Jolie's recent preventive surgery was an example of DNA sequencing in action: Jolie has the BRCA1 gene, which means she has a high risk of developing the breast cancer that killed her mother.
As Carole Cadwalladr writes in The Guardian: "revealing our full DNA will revolutionise medicine - but it will also raise huge ethical questions about what we do with the information".