Nov 08 2013

Emerging Technologies

Most Fridays I submit a blog post to Swift, the official blog of the JREF. The article I submitted this morning is about a new study demonstrating  a brain-machine-interface (BMI) that allows a rhesus monkey to control two robotic arms at the same time. This is a technology I have been following here at NeuroLogica, blogging about it whenever I think a cool breakthrough is made.

The topic touches on several areas simultaneously that I find fascinating – neuroscience, computer technology, virtual reality, and predicting future technology. I make the point, as I often do, that predicting future technology has a terrible track record, with the only reasonable conclusion being that it is very difficult.

It’s fun to look back at past future predictions and see what people generally got right and what they got wrong, and then see if we can learn any general lessons that we can apply to predicting future technology.

Major Hurdles

For example, we are not all flying around with jetpacks or taking our flying car to work. This has become, in fact, a cliche of failed future technologies. I think the lesson here is that both of these technologies suffer from a major hurdle – fuel is heavy, and if you have to carry your fuel around with you it quickly becomes prohibitive. There just doesn’t seem to be any way to overcome this limitation with chemical fuel or batteries.

In other words, whenever the viability of a technology depends upon making a major breakthrough that changes the game with respect to some major limitation imposed by the laws of physics, you cannot count on that technology succeeding in the short to medium term. Long term – all bets are off.

The coming hydrogen economy is another example. It turns out, safely and efficiently storing for convenient release large amounts of hydrogen is a non-trivial technical problem that will not be solved as a matter of course.

Incremental Advance

By contrast, even in the 1980s, but certainly by the early 1990′s the promise of the coming internet was in the air. I remember reading fiction, popular science articles, and talking about how the world will change when information becomes digital and ubiquitous. No one predicted ebay and Twitter specifically, but certainly online commerce and communication were anticipated.

The difference here is that computer and electronic technologies had a proven track record of continuous incremental improvement, and that was all that was necessary for the dreams of the internet to become reality. You can extrapolate incremental progress much more reliably that massive breakthroughs.

Not So Fast

Smartphones, also anticipated for decades, are now a reality. The additional lesson here is that sometimes it takes longer than we predict for a technology to mature. I remember people desperately trying to make use of early portable computing devices in the 1990s (like the Newton and other PDA). I was there, using my PDA, but the functionality was just not sufficient to make it easier than a paper notebook. I’m sure some people made it work for them, but widespread adoption was just not happening.

Now, 20 years later, smartphones have finally achieved the promise of portable personal computing devices. People use smartphones not only for communication, but to quickly look up information, to update their Twitter feed, to listen to music and podcasts, as still and video cameras, and as portable GPS devices. They are still rapidly increasing in power and utility, but they have definitely passed the bar of general adoption.

As PDAs, carrying around a small computer was not that useful. It took the development of other applications to really make the technology useful, such as GPS, the internet, MP3s, and miniaturized cameras.

Yes, But What Is It Good For?

Perhaps the most difficult prediction involves how a new technology will be used. Microwaves were developed for cooking. It turns out, they are terrible tools for cooking. The technology might have completely died on the vine, except it turns out they are really convenient for heating food – defrosting, rewarming, and, of course, making popcorn. They quickly became indispensable.

Segways were supposed to change the way people move about a city. They utterly failed in this goal. However, they enjoy a niche for security guards to move around malls and airports.

This is, in my opinion, the trickiest part of predicting future technology adoption. Even when the technology itself is viable, it’s hard to predict how millions of people will react to the technology. Why are we not all using video-phones all the time? In the 1980s I would have sworn they would be in wide adoption as soon as the technology was available. Now I could, if I chose, make every phone call a video call, but I choose not to. For most calls, it’s just not worth it. I’d rather not have to look into a camera and worry about what I am doing.

Likewise, who would have thought that people would prefer texting to talking on the phone? That was a real shocker to me.

Sometimes the adoption of a specific technology depends upon someone finding a good use for it. The technology itself may be viable, but utilization really determines whether or not it will be adopted. There is no substitute for the real-world experiment of millions of people getting their hands on a technology or application and seeing if they like it.

The Future

Will all this in mind, what are the technologies that I think are likely to have a huge impact on our future? This is a huge topic, and maybe I’ll dedicate a future blog post to exploring this further, but let me name some that come to mind.

Carbon nanotubes and graphene are the plastics and the semi-conductors of the 21st century rolled into one. This material is strong and has interesting and changeable conductive properties that make them potentially usable in small, energy efficient and flexible electronics. The major limitation right now is mass producing carbon nanofibers in long lengths and large amounts efficiently and with sufficient quality. This seems to be an area of steady progress, however.

This may seem like an easy one, but stem cells clearly have tremendous potential. However, I would have to file this one under – major breakthrough still necessary in order to achieve the full potential of stem cell technology. I also think this is one that will mature 2-3 decades later than popularly anticipated. Maybe by the middle of the 21st century we will begin to see the promise of growing or regenerating organs, reversing degenerative diseases, and healing major damage and disease with stem cells.

And to bring the article back around to the original topic – brain-machine interfaces in all manifestations. The ability to affect brain function with electricity and the ability to communicate between external devices (going in both directions – sensory input and motor or other output device) mediated by a computer chip has massive implications.

On the one hand, this is a new paradigm in treating the brain by altering its function. Right now the major medical intervention for brain function is pharmacological, but this approach has inherent limits. The brain is not only a chemical organ, however, it is an electrical organ, and increasingly we are seeing electrical devices, such as deep brain stimulation, to treat neurological diseases.

Beyond that, the ability to interface a brain and a computer essentially brings neuroscience into the computer age, which further means that applications will benefit from the continued incremental advance of computer technology. It may take a few more decades than we hope or anticipate, but we can now clearly see the day when paralyzed patients can control robot legs or arms through BMI, where we can enter a virtual world and not only control but actually mentally occupy an avatar, and where people can control anything technological in their environment through thought alone.

In short, it has been demonstrated that it is possible for humans to merge with their machines. I know this sounds like hyperbole and science fiction, but the science is pretty solid if immature.

This technology is coming. What remains to be seen is what applications will develop, and how will people react.

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9 responses so far

9 Responses to “Emerging Technologies”

  1. Neilon 08 Nov 2013 at 11:52 am

    With regard to CNTs and graphene, CNTs appear to be a far less attractive option compared to graphene (for the reasons you point out). It will surprise me if there isn’t a fairly significant graphene-based technology within the next five years.

    My prediction is that the incremental improvements and installation of proximity (rate and distance) sensors in cars will allow us to eventually drive around in a semi-automated way that will reduce traffic accidents. This is a good thing considering how much I see people looking down at their phones as they are driving at 70 mph. The conversion into an automated traffic network is not something we can just do (even though we already have the technology to do it) because people will undoubtedly resist. But if we keep installing these sensors in more and more cars (like airbags) and they start to reduce accidents, we’ll be moving towards that fairly quickly without people realizing it. Hopefully that happens before my kids start driving.

  2. ChrisHon 08 Nov 2013 at 12:08 pm

    “Now, 20 years later, smartphones have finally achieved the promise of portable personal computing devices.”

    Though some of us with fat fingers and eyes that are almost sixty years old are not that excited by smartphones. I’m sticking to a dumb phone and a tablet with a keyboard cover (noting that I can get free wifi almost anywhere).

    When I am driving and need to get directions, I ask the teenager in the passenger seat to look it up on her smartphone.

  3. Heptronon 08 Nov 2013 at 12:27 pm

    Dr. Novella, what are your thoughts on biotechnology?

    The idea of using bacteria to produce chemicals using bacteria at neutral pH and 37°C or 98.6°F seems like a no-brainer given that traditional production methods (depending on the chemicals) takes place at several times atmospheric pressure and up to 204°C or 400°F.
    I also have a soft spot for biotech since it was the focus of my master’s degree. My particular project didn’t work as we intended, but our lab group was definitely successful not only in producing high-value chemicals but also in bioremediation.

  4. LDoBeon 09 Nov 2013 at 1:27 am

    The first time I saw the Ghost in the Shell series I was utterly hooked. I’m pretty much convinced that eventually (I can’t even hazard a guess, probably no sooner than a hundred years from now at least) people will have the option of nearly completely forgoing their meat bodies and upgrading to cybernetic parts that simply work better and are as replaceable as keyboards, monitors and mice are for computers.
    Certainly the tech won’t be available for everyone, and will be astronomically expensive, but I’m sure there’ll be a bunch of veterans walking around with eyes that see from infrared to x-ray, and legs that can be replaced in a day if they’re broken instead of taking months to heal. And people will want that, and eventually get it.
    Heck, imagine the kind of psycho-active state of mind altering things that can be done with a direct line to the brain. There’ll definitely be wireheads. I wouldn’t mind programming my peripheral nervous system to drive me to work while my gray matter can kickback and surf the web in the meantime.

    It’s pretty much science fiction at this point, but the way things are going, I’m pretty sure it’s a matter of time before everyone has the option of ditching their biology for technical solutions that work better, last longer and are swappable.

  5. Nitpickingon 10 Nov 2013 at 3:00 pm

    Microwave ovens are a poor tool for roasting and baking. They’re an excellent way to cook vegetables, though. You were a bit overbroad above.

  6. oldmanjenkinson 11 Nov 2013 at 8:48 am

    Wholly Schnikeys! Apple Newton. I had one of those. People thought I was overboard with trying to keep organized, now look at everyone and their tablet, phone etc.

  7. Davdoodleson 12 Nov 2013 at 1:28 am

    Sharks with frikkin’ lasers attached to their heads!

    X-ray specs.

    Sea monkeys that actually look like the little be-crowned anthropomorphs on the advertisements.

    And a robot like in Forbidden Planet, but nothing like the one in Lost in Space (which I think might have just had an actor inside).
    .

  8. zorrobanditoon 18 Nov 2013 at 6:00 pm

    @Neil If the computers which are supposed to drive my car on the freeway have the reliability of the computer which drives my law practice, thanks, but no thanks.

    Will it suddenly blue-screen for no reason? Will it require to be shut off and turned on again to work properly? Will it insert ads and forget what I originally asked for?

  9. purenootropicson 07 Jan 2014 at 10:16 pm

    Nitpicking, I have to disagree. Every baked potato (whether sweet, yukon gold, red etc) is made to perfection in my (mediocre) microwave. It is excellent for baking certain things..

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