Science, technology & design

Ten future technologies

Here’s a list of ten emerging technologies courtesy of Technology Review.
  1. Airborne networks – allowing planes to fly without ground controllers (or pilots).
  2. Silicon photonics – using silicon chips to emit light to speed up data processing.
  3. Quantum wires – using carbon nanotube wires to carry electricity.
  4. Biomechatronics – mixing robotics with nervous systems to create new artificial limbs.
  5. Enviromatics – using computers to plan and forecast agricultural production.
  6. Bacterial factories – metabolic engineering taking on a new lease of life.
  7. Cell-phone security – preventing digital epidemics carried by mobile phones.
  8. Magnetic-resonance force microscopy –3D viewing of atoms and molecules.
  9. Metabolomics – a new medical diagnosis tool using the metabolic information.
  10. Nanoelectronics – eg, using nanostructures to store more data in smaller areas.
Ref: Technology Review (US), May 2005.


Flash-drives get fashionable

The global market for flash-drives (also known as thumb drives or key drives) is worth US $4 billion a year and is growing at 100% every 12 months. The main reason for this growth is convenience. Why carry around a Zip drive or floppy disc when you can wear your data around your neck? And increasingly, that’s exactly what men (who buy 80% of these products) are doing, thanks for cool designs like Apple’s i-Pod shuffle (which also operates as a flash-drive) and the rap music-inspired trend for men to wear heavy jewellery. Not to miss an opportunity, manufactures are now designing flash-drives to appeal to women and also products that can carry company logos (to allow business people to hand over in place of business cards or corporate brochures). Pretty soon we’ll see products hidden inside clothing too. Indeed, this trend could be the first baby step towards the wearable computers which have been talked about for so long.

Ref: The Economist (UK), Technology Quarterly, 11 June 2005, ‘Flash and carry’.


I want to be alone

In 2000 approximately 10% of the world’s population was aged 60+. By 2050 this figure will be 22%. And in Japan and Italy 28% of their populations will be aged 65+ in just 25 years time. One of the implications of ageing populations is that more people will be living alone at home. This is good for older people because it’s better than living in a communal home, but it’s a worry for relatives and expensive for governments and healthcare providers who have to constantly visit people to see that they’re OK.
One solution that allows people to live in their own homes for longer is technology. For example, Wizard Software in the US has developed Rex – a bottle of pills that tells you its contents via a button on the base of the bottle, a microchip and a small speaker. Messages can be generic or recorded by relations – ‘Mum, you need to take one of these at six o’clock every night’. (Why not do the same with food packaging?). Another idea, being developed by HP Labs, is printing barcodes directly on to pills. Simply pass the pill past a coffee cup-sized reader and the scanner tells you want the pill is and when you should take it. Other innovations include Heath Buddy, a device that gives patients’ daily coaching and Bang & Olufsen’s Helping Hand, a device that holds and releases pills. In theory, any electronic device that is used on a regular basis can monitor health, which is why in Japan there’s a kettle that sends emails to family and friends saying how often it’s been picked up. There are also countless remote monitoring devices in the pipeline including cameras and phones and wearable computers, some of which could be quite intrusive. However, as one expert put it, ‘what greater loss of privacy is there than moving out of your own house’.

Ref: The Economist (UK), Technology Quarterly, 11 June 2005, ‘Home alone’.


Don’t tell me, show me

What’s the next frontier in terms of search engines? The answer is probably either voice or image searching, and in the case of images, video searching is certainly what’s being talked about. The vision is crystal clear. Type a line from a favourite film, or type in a phrase like ‘red cars in films’, and in return you get a link to the film or a list of clips featuring red cards. Video searching is already taking off with firms such as Google and Yahoo offering basic searches, but the technology is far from being complete. For example, you can find references to your favourite film but not the film itself. As for ‘red cars in films’ forget it. There are three main ways of inputting content to make such searches work. The first is capturing what’s called ‘closed captioning’ or subtitles in films. The second is to use voice-recognition technology to ‘capture’ the soundtrack and convert it to text, while the third route is to add semantic tags to clips. All are currently expensive and impractical. Another problem is that most of the content people are looking for isn’t on the web. However, in the future, once someone sorts out a business model, you will be able to ask your TV (or computer) to ‘show me films featuring car chases in Milan’. By the way, if you think this is far-fetched, there is already a US company (Critical Mention) that takes content from 60+ TV stations, analyses what’s being said and sends clips to corporate clients over the web.

Ref: The Economist (UK), Technology Quarterly, 11 June 2005, ‘Google, meet TiVo’.