Science is full of popular ideas and concepts. The ones we hear about are those that the general media speculate will determine the course of human society. However, it is the mundane and simple ideas that develop to shift our daily lives in ways that are difficult to predict. In this article I explore some of the more obscure and unassuming scientific endeavors that I believe will affect all of our lives in the years to come.
1. Photovoltaics – Solar power that can generate electricity from sunlight, without relying on any other energy source. This is a new technology for homes, but is already powering street lights and traffic lights. Solar power has the potential to be a key part of the future of green energy, and if solar cells can be produced cheaply enough, they could replace our existing power grids with thousands of smaller solar generators scattered across the globe. Decentralized power availability will be the key to sustainable energy, as opposed to depending on a few massive power plants, and using more expensive methods of transportation of electricity over long distances.
2. Superconductivity – the state of matter in which an electrical current moves through a material almost with no resistance (or at least with brief resistance), as opposed to an insulating material like glass which has very high resistance. There are two known forms of superconductivity: BCS and Tl2Ba2CuO4 type. Both are subject to a variety of problems at the moment, but superconductive materials are continually being discovered and researched in what is a relatively new field. Superconductors have the potential to revolutionize many industries, but it may be a long time before we can say that they have.
3. Drug Development – Most drugs we have today were recreated from plants or herbs by ancient civilizations, with modern science just identifying the chemical compounds in these ingredients. Modern medicine has advanced to where we can identify new pharmaceuticals, and plant compounds are often a good starting point for new drugs that can have more direct effects on our health than chemicals derived from animal testing. Drug development is an growing process, and there are many new drugs being discovered every year. Many of these could have been discovered a decade or more ago, but the time needed for developing high-quality pharmaceuticals is reduced with modern technology. Many projects are being focused on finding ways to reduce the time needed to discover new drugs, such as drug screening techniques.
4. Genetically modified food – The idea that by modifying the DNA of our seeds or plants we can create crops that are resistant to pests, resistant to diseases, require less fertilizer or grow more efficiently etc. Genetically modified crops are very controversial, and this is a huge controversy that isn’t likely to go away. The supporters of GM crops believe that ultimately we can feed the world’s growing population by increasing the yields of our food sources. Opponents fear that these modified foods will cause many health problems, and will contaminate our normal crops with their modified DNA. There is still much debate, but based on current data I feel comfortable saying that GM foods will be a part of our future, whether people like it or not.
5. Antibiotic resistant diseases – bacteria are constantly strengthening defenses against our antibiotics, leading to new strains of disease and infection that are hard to deal with as we race to discover new drugs and vaccines. Many bacteria have become resistant to antibiotics through the process known as horizontal gene transfer, whereby a single bacterium can steal an antibiotic producing gene from another similar bacterium. This has especially been a problem in hospitals with the use of antibiotic-resistant E. coli infections, and there are some concerns that the newly discovered superbug MRSA could soon spread to other parts of our society and cause serious illnesses.
6. Nanotechnology – The study of extremely small materials used for purposes such as biomedical implants or building microscopic components in computers. Nanotechnology is a relatively new field with wide-ranging implications, but many researchers are working on nanoscale materials that have applications in a range of fields, including medicine and pharmaceuticals. Current research projects include using nanoscale particles for drug delivery, and nano-sized materials for creating artificial tissues or organs.
7. Super capacitors – capacitors store energy, and very large capacitors can have a significant effect on the power output of electric vehicles. Supercapacitors are already used to power hybrid cars, and currently there are plans to use supercapacitors in aircraft such as planes. By far the most impressive application of supercapacitors is being developed by NASA for powering Mars spacecraft, as they allow much higher voltages than traditional batteries.
8. Extraterrestrial Agriculture – Extremes in temperature and pressure create a wide range of new challenges for farming, and the space industry will give us a brand new world to grow food in. The technology used for extraterrestrial agriculture will also be be useful on Earth, where climate change and other factors may lead to many regions becoming less suitable for growing crops. It is possible that extraterrestrial agriculture could allow us to create entire self-sustaining colonies on various planets and moons throughout our solar system.
9. Nanobots – tiny robots that can be used for medical purposes (performing surgeries), searching out and destroying disease cells, or as a building block in nanotechnology. Many projects are in the works, and we hopefully will see Nano robots in the market within the next decade.
10. Space Solar Power – a system for beaming solar power directly to Earth from satellites in geosynchronous orbit. Though it has yet to be commercially implemented, space solar power is a big potential source of energy that we could use both on Earth and possibly in outer space to build various colonies or for extraterrestrial agriculture.
11. Futuristic Materials – Many original materials are being researched for future technologies, though they are still years away from being commercialized. One of the most interesting is the use of graphene, which is one of the strongest and lightest materials known to man. It is still in its infancy, but it has many applications in science and medicine. Other promising materials include transparent aluminum and smart fabrics.
12. Cybernetics – The science of robot technology is advancing quickly, and new robotic prosthetic technologies are being built to help people with limb loss or paralysis control their artificial limbs in many cases. Artificial limbs are also going to be capable of feeling pain and pleasure, allowing the body’s natural nervous system to control them. Cybernetic advances are also allowing paralyzed individuals to communicate with others by controlling a computer with their brain.
12. Biological Computers – computers are already amazing tools for math, physics, engineering, etc., but a biological computer would be even better because of having an enormous number of calculations that could be performed at once. Researchers are working on creating biological computers that would be a thousand times faster than ordinary computers using DNA as their memory unit. This could help us solve many new types of problems in physics, mathematics, and other fields.
13. Artificial Cells – very small robotic devices that can be used for research or medical purposes. We can program these tiny robots to perform many tasks, which makes them unique. Artificial cells could create novel forms of energy, or even form other biological computers using a bacteria’s cellular machinery. The creation of engineered biological organisms and systems to expand our capabilities through genetic manipulation and technological augmentation.
14. Human DNA Packaging – the concept of human DNA packaging involves placing genes from other species into human cells, so that they can treat diseases or to create new drugs. This would enable us to use partly synthetic substances (made from our own bodies) as medicine and could also help us understand completely new concepts of living systems.
15. Genetic Testing and Gene Therapy – a genetic testing service for determining disease risks, besides helping with medical treatment decisions. Genetic testing is already being performed because of the Human Genome Project. A genetic test could create a new drug, since it would tell you what type of proteins are needed to make the new medicine. A genetic test would be helpful as a preventative measure, as well.
16. 3D Printing – 3d printing is already used in industry, including by pharmaceutical companies and some military applications. Though medical uses of 3d printing technology are still being researched, similar technology is being used for rapid prototyping in engineering design and manufacturing industries as well. Future applications for 3d printing may include making small structures that are integral to spacecraft or even space habitats, assembly of larger structures on Earth and in space using nanoscale materials, etc. 3D printers are already quite useful for creating objects in different materials out of plastic, so they could be helpful for making rapid prototypes or even building an entire house. These printers could produce structures in liquid form on Earth and then be used to send them up into space, where they would meld into a solid object when heated.
17. Artificial Organs and Tissue Regeneration – 3d printing could also create replacement organs for people with organ failure. Since the printer can make structures of any shape, it should be possible to create many artificial organs and tissues for humans or animals. This technology is already being researched by several laboratories, but it is still far from market use.
18. Space Resources – the idea of harvesting resources from outer space and using them on Earth could be quite important to creating both cheap energy sources and building materials. In addition, space resources could also help us create alternative forms of life, providing us with some extra opportunities for biological research and exploration. The idea of using space resources is still fairly new and controversial.
19. Molecular Computing – computing that is based on the movement of molecules, rather than on an electronic system or regular mechanical switches. There are a lot of different methods for changing the structure of molecules to create a change in the computer’s output, and this technology could be especially useful for preventing hackers from gaining access to your digital information. Using molecular computing as opposed to regular computer chips would also require less power and would be less expensive to manufacture.
20. Organic Electronics – the development of electronic devices using organic molecules rather than silicon. Eventually, much smaller electronic devices can be created using these man-made organic substances, since they are more flexible and less expensive than silicon based technology. Organic electronics could also be more environmentally friendly, since they use no toxic chemicals to make them.
21. Artificial Vascular Systems – an artificial vascular system is one in which cells are used for some functions of blood vessels and blood. Artificial vascular systems would be useful in several situations, such as for surgeries or for patients with organ failure. This technology is also still being researched, but it has a great deal of potential.
22. Quantum Computing – a computer that uses particles of light (photons) rather than electrons. Unlike traditional computers, quantum computers will solve problems that are difficult or even impossible for regular computers to solve. Since the computer itself is made of particle-like entities, it is possible to build these computers to be very difficult for even a large group of hackers or other criminals to crack.
23. Brain-Computer Interfaces – a programmable software interface that allows you to control what happens on your computer with your thoughts, rather than with special hardware or software keys. This technology could be used by people with disabilities such as ALS and Alzheimer’s disease, allowing them to communicate verbally once again using specialized software and equipment. It could also allow people to control things like machinery, robots and cars.
24. Artificial Nervous System – an artificial nervous system would allow a person to communicate directly with special software and equipment, sending signals to your personal computer rather than through plugging something into your computer’s side port. This would also make certain kinds of medical procedures, in which a doctor signals the patient’s brain, much safer and less invasive for the patient. This technology is still in the research stages, but it has great potential in both medical and military applications.
25. Permanent extraterrestrial human colonies – the idea of permanent colonies on other planets has been discussed by many people and organizations in different forms for decades. By developing a viable economy beyond the confines of Earth, we can also explore the galaxy at large and create an ever-growing human civilization.
26. Anti-aging medicine – a discipline that explores ways to slow the aging process, so that people have more time to live on Earth and are often healthier in their older age. Soon, anti-aging medicine may help elderly people live longer and remain healthy even into advanced age. This could be especially important for people who cannot afford to live very long past the age of retirement or who are interested in living long enough to see their grandchildren grow up and have children of their own.
In summary, these are, in my view, the top 26 emerging technologies that are most likely to affect our lives in the future. Some of them have already affected us slightly, and some are still just discussion topics at universities or laboratories. Either way, it’s good to know about and understand these technologies before they become common place in the future. In my regular newsletter, which you can sign up to for free at Sol3a.com, I explore these ideas and more.
Not all of these top technologies will affect you, but it’s still a good idea for everyone to be aware of them. An increasing number of people depend on technology in their daily lives as well, so knowing which technology is most likely to advance can help you with investment decisions and other decisions as well.
What have I missed? Is there another important emerging technology that I haven’t discussed, or is there one that you feel should have a higher ranking?
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