Science / Technology · April 26, 2006

The future is already here

“The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.”
– William Gibson

One of the things I love about my job is the exposure I get to new, emerging technologies. It’s always exciting trying to predict what will be the next big technological hit. Will the next new technology become the equivalent of the microwave oven, the cell phone, or the Internet? Or will a promising technology fall by the wayside like consumer digital audiotape, or Betamax?

New technology has already drastically changed lives around the world. Consider the cell phone. In America, the cell phone was a luxury item at first. People questioned its usefulness because the American phone system infrastructure was so ubiquitous that anyone who wanted a phone in their home could get one installed much cheaper than buying a cell phone.

But in China, Korea, and Thailand, a cell phone is a necessity. Phone companies there did not have the ability to install the same sort of wired phone system that existed in America. When I was stationed in Korea, I vividly recall that phone lines were draped over rooftops in crowded neighborhoods because there was no place to install a telephone pole. Apartment buildings were just too close together. In many cases, power poles had to be installed right in the street, causing a minor traffic hazard in older neighborhoods.

The cell phone for these countries allowed people to get a good, reliable connection without the hassle and cost of a wired phone.

The Internet is another example. Here in America, it has drastically changed the way that we shop, communicate, learn, and entertain ourselves. Billions of dollars a year flow through the Internet. It is no wonder that major corporations are now fighting to gain control of this media.

Another technological breakthrough is the microwave oven. It has changed the way that the whole world cooks.

I like to think about possible technologies that will have the greatest impact on humanity. There have been many simple technologies in history that have changed the world dramatically. For example, the stirrup revolutionized warfare, bringing about the era of the armored knight, which was brought finally to an end by the English longbow, the crossbow, and finally the gun.

What new technology could again change the world dramatically? What does the world need?

First, the world needs clean water, for our crops and for us. Farmers and people who get their water from wells are concerned about water, but most Americans take clean water for granted. In other countries, such as Africa, clean water is difficult to acquire. A technological breakthrough here would be an inexpensive method of generating a lot of clean water quickly. Current methods are either cheap and slow, or extremely expensive and fast.

Next, the world needs a better battery. Generating energy is easy – but storing that energy is difficult. The problems for any energy storage system include charge and discharge rates, along with energy density.

Chemical batteries are inefficient, slow, and they really don’t like to be recharged. Capacitors are efficient and fast, and don’t mind charging and discharging, but their energy density is very small. Flywheels are inefficient and can’t be made small. Fuels, such as gasoline or hydrogen, have excellent energy density, but must be converted to electricity through processes that leave dangerous waste products; not to mention that they cannot be ‘recharged’.

One of my biggest pet peeves is the input / output methods for computers. I still use a full-sized keyboard and 21-inch monitor to access a computer that could be squeezed into a brick the size of a cell phone. As our computers shrink further, there will come a time when they will be the size of a button or smaller. We need a better way to access these computers, or we will stay tied to bulky systems.

I would also love to see a better way to leave the Earth and start exploring space. Currently the price to get into space is in the thousands of dollars per pound. It isn’t worth sending people into space as yet. Economically, it makes more sense to only send robots. If there was a method of launching vehicles into space at a cost of dollars, or even cents per pound, I believe there would be a great rush to the ‘new frontier’ of space. Yes, I do realize that there are problems of bone loss and radiation in space, but I believe these problems are solvable – and that cheap exploration would be key to solving them.

These problems sound unsolvable don’t they? The interesting thing is that they are not. The invention of the carbon nanotube has lead to experiments with super capacitors that are showing promise of replacing batteries. Carbon nanotubes are also the proposed material for use in a space elevator.

Experiments are being preformed with brain-machine interfaces that may solve the computer input problem (and make quadriplegics walk again too!) The Army already uses a video system that beams images directly into the eye with no need for a computer monitor.

The hardest problem to solve, the one with the least headway, is the problem of cheap, clean water. But there are ideas and experiments here too.

We hear about new technology all the time, and then it seems to fade away. That doesn’t mean that it is gone. If it’s a good idea, it will return after a time, better developed, more compact, and cheaper. This is what engineers do; improve things through progressively better designs.

New technology isn’t evenly distributed, as William Gibson said. Who knows when you’ll be able to write in your blog and surf the Internet without need of a keyboard or monitor? Perhaps never for you, perhaps your kids or grandkids may be the ones to benefit from new technology. It takes a long time for new things to seep into common use.

After all, the first Microwave oven was built in 1947 and cost thousands of dollars. What a difference from the $38.95 Wal-Mart model that is evenly distributed (in America at least) today.