5 Technologies That Will Change the World

Mar 20, 2014

Genetically modified GloFish fluorescent fish swim around a tank. Image via Wikipedia.

Creative destruction: it's what drives the economy and remakes the world in unpredictable ways. Often it's the result of a technological breakthrough, such as the telegraph. Sometimes it's a more subtle development, involving the bringing together of disparate elements in new ways, such as the assembly line. What they have in common is entrepreneurial talent, grit, and hard work that get new ways of doing things across the finish line.

Here are five technologies that are remaking the world right now.

Shale gas fracking

Fracking's contribution to the natural gas boom in the U.S. is a perfect example of how disruption can sometimes be as simple as putting old ingredients together in new ways. Shale gas production has gone from nearly nothing in 2000 to around 25 billion cubic feet per day according to the Energy Information Agency. Fracking now accounts for around 40% of all gas output, helping replace fading production from older fields. In fact, according to some estimates, the U.S. now has access to enough natural gas that energy independence for North America is a real possibility, something that would remake the global geopolitical landscape.

George P. Mitchell, known as the “father of fracking,” put together a number of existing techniques in the ‘90s to unlock natural gas that was previously was considered not commercially viable. While the horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing (fracking), and seismic mapping techniques now used to extract the gas have been around for years, what was missing was the right cocktail for the fracking liquid—and determination.

In 1997, the team devised a relatively simple mixture of sand, water, and a gelling agent extracted from the guar bean, which boosted yields to commercially viable levels and unlocked the current energy revolution. Now gas fracking rigs are operational in at least 21 states, and the technique is now also being used to extract what's called tight oil, as well.

Robotics

For much of the past century, the promise of robots seemed trapped in movies. But after nearly a half century of technological slog by legions of researchers and private companies, robots are close to stepping across a threshold, thanks to the rapidly increasing computing horsepower and innovative approaches to movement and control. Robots stand to affect almost every sector of the economy, with huge changes in store in the transport, communications, and healthcare sectors.

A likely next step in the broader rollout of new generation robotics will be augmentative systems, such as Iron Man-like exoskeletons that amplify their users' strength. It's a small step to semi-autonomous units such as Mars rovers and Boston Dynamics’ Atlas, which make some decisions on their own and are invaluable in situations where humans can't easily go, such as other planets.

Google may have scored the headlines with its driverless cars (yes, they're robots too), but BMW and other auto makers have jumped in and are busy rolling out their own prototypes. While the prospect of reading a book on the way to Thanksgiving dinner is attractive, the real payoff will be economic, such as in logistics where labor costs could be slashed.

The communications industry is ripe for disruption, as well. In fact, companies such as Titan Aerospace are already raising money for a new crop of solar-powered drones that could replace satellites, potentially reducing the cost of data and voice services around the world.

Medical Imaging

Ground-shaking changes in medical imaging are also afoot. Technology has moved so quickly in recent years that the CAT Scan machines released half a decade ago that could record movies of a beating heart are now almost passé.

New techniques that leverage water-diffusion sensing to yield previously unavailable images of nerves and muscle fibers are opening the way to transformative changes and new medical advances. The hazy gray-scale MRIs common today will be replaced by 3-D, false-color images that will revolutionize diagnosis by letting doctors perform virtual exploratory surgery. Doctors are giddy at the prospect of being able see exactly how blocked a heart patient's arteries are, the condition of nerves in MS patients, or the condition of a tumor.

And if doctors must cut, they will be able to use the new imaging techniques to construct personalized computer simulations that will let them effectively practice on the patient as many times as needed even before booking the operating room. The potential improvement for all surgical outcomes is breathtaking, but is especially clear in joint-replacement procedures, where patients must endure expensive additional surgery if new hips and knees don’t fit perfectly.

Mobile computing and communications

After a decade of rapid development, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the tablet and smartphone wave has peaked. But faster cellular connections, ever more ubiquitous wifi, and raw computing horsepower mean the smartphone and its cousin — the wearable computer such as Google glass or the rumored iWatch — will weave the Internet ever more tightly into daily life.

There'll be plenty of devices to go around. The networking firm Cisco predicts that there will be more than 8 billion mobile devices in operation by 2016, or more than the UN's prediction of 7.4 billion global population for the same year — with another 2 billion mobile machine-machine connections (think medical device or GPS units).

Nearly every area of human endeavor is ripe for disruption, from first responders to the military. The U.S. is already training soldiers with mobile devices so that they can access the latest intelligence. Meanwhile, police departments including New York City's, the largest in the country, are rolling out plans to equip patrolmen with tablets.

The technology holds even greater promise for developing nations. Countries in Africa and elsewhere are leapfrogging older telecommunications infrastructure and are moving directly to cellular technologies. Cisco predicts that mobile data traffic in Africa and the Middle East will jump some 70% by 2018, far higher than elsewhere in the world. And with smartphones now rapidly becoming available at all price points, the impact on industries such as financial services, medicine, and commerce are likely to be even greater than in the West. Already, Chinese Internet firms are giving old-line banks a run for their money, while mobile banking is taking off in parts of Africa.

Genetic manipulation

Luminescent goldfish may be a cool party trick, but modern genetic manipulation techniques are set to unleash the power of genetic engineering. The most interesting recent development uses a common bacteria to accurately edit DNA. Where older techniques might have taken weeks or months, the Crispr system can cut the work to just days. And by actually rewriting the target's own DNA, it sidesteps a key concern about GMOs.

Scientists caution that there are some further hurdles ahead, but the technique's development in 2012 set of a gold rush among startups, such as Crispr Therapeutics in London and Caribou Biosciences in the Bay Area. It shouldn't be hard to find additional investors, given the possibilities for targeted disease treatments, vaccine and compound creation through “pharming” and manipulation of foodstuffs.

Already, GMO corn has helped bring U.S. yields to record highs, and the efforts there have been limited to implementing pesticide resistance. Easier techniques promise additional gains by improving yield and resistance to disease without having to use pesticides at all.

The new techniques could also help boost the potential of biofuels such as ethanol from cellulosic materials, though the natural gas boom has effectively bought the U.S. another generation before it must rely on these types of energy resources.

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