List of emerging technologies

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Emerging technologies can have a significant impact on the way we do the most basic things. It can alter deep-rooted practices and disrupt entire industries. Understanding these technologies is important because it will allow us to maximize the benefits that can potentially arise out of such technologies. While there are many new innovations in the works, the following is a list of technologies that are likely to take shape in the next 5 years.

Blockchain

Blockchain has been a buzzword spoken these days along with Bitcoin. However, Bitcoin and Blockchain are two totally different things. The blockchain is a digital ledger, similar to the accounting ledger you may have seen in your office. The key difference, however, is that blockchain is shared ledger on the internet and every person on the internet (or on a secured network) can view the information entered on this shared decentralized ledger. In some cases, the participants on the network can also endorse addition of new information on the blockchain.

Various types of information such as financial transaction data, events data, or records can be entered on the blockchain ledger. One big benefit of this shared ledger is that it cannot be easily tampered with. Every person on the network will have to endorse a change to the content of the blockchain for it to change. So, blockchain is a safe, secure, and decentralized (not controlled by any single authority). It can have tremendous use in tracking the flow of information or actions in areas that suffer from low levels of trust. It also highly useful in areas where participants cannot trade or exchange freely without an intermediary.

Some potential areas for the use of blockchain are smart contracts and legal, money transfer, health records and public healthcare delivery, land records, voting and elections, intellectual property, food safety, and supply chain/transportation. Records which are almost impossible to fudge can be created, service delivery can be monitored and guaranteed, corruption can be eliminated, and expensive processes involving intermediaries can be made faster and inexpensive using blockchain.

Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality enables the superimposition of computer-generated content over our view of the real world. Augmented Reality brings elements from the digital world into our perspective of the real world. It is a different technology from Virtual Reality, which is completely digital or fictional, and comprises of 100% computer generated content. Augmented Reality software analyzes incoming video feed, downloads and processes data about the existing environment, and then superimposes data over it in the form of images, animations, or text.

Some popular examples of Augmented Reality are often cited in the field of shopping. A shopper can get a view of how a chair and a sofa will fit in with the rest of his/her existing decor, or see how a dress will look on a particular body shape. Other potential areas of Augmented Reality could be translation and travel. For example, a foreign tourist being able to read a street sign that is translated in his/her local language.

Imagine walking through a museum where Augmented Reality can pull up hologram guides next to an exhibit, or a host in a hologram form explaining the exhibit. Healthcare can be a big beneficiary of Augmented Reality. Surgeons, for example, could look at a person’s skin while images of the underlying tissue are also visible due to superimposition of images.

Augmented reality is an integral part of what is known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This new industrial revolution is a term given to the new way of efficient manufacturing where data and software help integrate the physical and digital worlds to improve the overall process.

Cultured Meat (Lab-grown meat)

Can you imagine meat which can now be consumed without killing any animals? No, we are not suggesting eating a live animal. We are talking about lab-grown meat, also known as cultured meat. Meat that is grown in the laboratory via cultured cells might sound odd but it has some compelling benefits. From an environmental point of view, fewer resources are consumed because you are not having to devote resources to sustain an organism’s entire life from birth to meat. All you need is the resources to run the cultured meat lab.

Another more important benefit is related to the ethical and social aspect of slaughtering animals. Raising animals for food is considered cruel and unethical. Hence, by adopting “clean meat”, such concerns can be eliminated.

Cultured meat is made by collecting cells from the tissue of an animal muscle sample. These cells are then allowed to multiply and differentiate into primitive fibers. The fibers then bulk up, leading to the formation of muscle tissue. There are estimates that one tissue sample can help produce 80,000 quarter pounders.

There are a few start-ups that are working on making cultured meat economically viable. Currently, it costs multiple times more to produce cultured meat than regular meat. Besides cost, the other issue that needs to be addressed is taste. Ultimately, if regular meat has to be substituted with cultured meat, then the new solution has to taste the same or at least similar to the old product. The texture of the meat and the flavoring also needs to be fine-tuned. If these issues are sorted out, then it can go a long way to convincing people that lab meat is just as good as regular meat.

Gene drive and genetic engineering

Genetic engineering has the potential to permanently alter entire species on our planet. It is a very powerful technology and one that is progressing quite rapidly. In fact, institutions like DARPA and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have poured in close to $175 million for research in gene drive.

Gene drive is essentially delivery of a genetic element (via an engineering substance) to a living organism. This genetic element then gets passed on from the parent to the offspring. The idea is to pass on the genetic element to a large number of off-spring and alter certain traits of those offspring. Think of genetic engineering of mosquitoes so that they do not spread malaria, or rendering pests ineffective in order to save crops from damage and destruction.

The potential areas for application of this incredible technology are quite numerous. However, there needs to be a proper set of guidelines and laws regarding the use of genetic engineering. After all, it can completely alter species and needs to be used in a responsible and ethical manner.

CRISPR has introduced gene editing legally and there have been some research successes as well. With a proper framework, this technology is not too far from becoming deployable.

Implantable drug-making cells

Implantable drug-making cells are cells which can be sent into a body of a living organism and made to deliver hormones or therapeutic material to the body. These cells are also capable of producing the delivery material when inside the body. One area of application is diabetes. Normally, a person would do a quick blood test (by pricking fingers) to check insulin levels. If the level is low, then insulin is taken. But, an implantable cell can be placed inside the body of the diabetic person and insulin can be generated and delivered by this cell as and when needed.

A similar approach can be followed in the case of life-threatening diseases like cancer, Parkinsons’s disease, glaucoma, hemophilia, etc. So then what is stopping such miracle cells from being used on a widespread basis. The answer is our body’s immune system. If the immune system detects a foreign cell in our body, then the natural action is to reject it and kill the cell via a process called Fibrosis. The immune system grows scar tissue around the cell and stops nutrients from reaching the foreign cell.

But this problem received a breakthrough in 2016 when a team at MIT published details of a way to work around the immune system rejection. By using a gel known as alginate, the process of fibrosis was observed to not have occurred (test diabetic mice were used). Pharma companies like Eli Lilly and start-ups like Sigilon Therapeutics are now working on designing various solutions for different health disorders.

3D printing for construction of buildings

Building cheap homes and building them fast has been a massive requirement in a world where millions of people do not have a proper home. 3D printing could now be the answer to that problem as it has made great strides in the field of construction. It is now possible to build a home in a mere 24 hours with the help of a 3D printer. A special 3D printer uses concrete material that is much thicker than regular concrete. This concrete is also capable of supporting itself as it sets solid.

3D printing lowers some of the design constraints that architects faced until now. Structural components made using 3D printers also use fewer materials. 3D printers can also manufacture curved components that are hollow. Conventional ways of making curved components led to the creation of solid structures. But with 3D printed hollow structures, space can be created right inside the component for necessary building service needs and equipment. The overall effect of all these improvements is lower timelines, lesser labor, lesser material, and cheaper cost.

On a more general note, 3D printing has led to a reduced dependence on specialists. The previous industrial revolution shifted the manufacturing process from individual driven cottage industries to large centralized factories that required specialists to run. Now, the process of manufacturing is returning back to the individual level, away from specialists. This has reduced the dependence on specialists and has made housing much more accessible to regions which were underserviced.

Flexible Display

Displays and screens have always been flat. Very recently, we are starting to see slightly curved television screens and smartphones. But, what if you could work on your tablet in the office and then fold it up into a phone or roll it up into a wristwatch? That is what flexible display can do. It can transform the way we think about electronic devices.

Flexible displays are made using organic light emitting diodes or OLEDs on a plastic substrate.  It is the material of the substrate that allows the display to be flexible. Traditional technology calls for a glass substrate which is not as flexible as plastic. The key concern at this time is to make a plastic material flexible enough so that it does not break or crack upon repeated bending and stress.

Key areas of application for flexible displays are automotive and consumer electronics. A phone can be made foldable, a phone can be turned into a watch, or a display/screen can be turned into clothing or an accessory which changes color. The possibilities seem endless. In the automotive space, cars are getting more and more loaded with electronics. A flexible display can be used to make next-generation dashboard displays with better designs than current solutions which are flat screen designs.

The durability of a flexible display is far greater than a flat display because flexible surfaces can absorb shock better. The more the technology behind flexible displays develops, the more exciting the products will be.

5G and IoT

5G or 5th generation is the next generation of mobile connectivity after 4G. 5G is faster than any other previous generations of internet connectivity and has a very short latency of around 1 millisecond. 5G can allow for handling of much higher bandwidth capacity than what previous generations could handle.

While high speed means faster download and streaming speeds, one of the most profound impacts of this high-speed internet network will be the ability of sensors and machines to communicate with each other. That is what the Internet of Things or IoT is about. Simply put, if 1G, 2G, 3G, and 4G allowed for human to human interaction as well as human to machine interaction, then 5G will allow for machine to machine interaction.

5G and IoT are closely linked. With a next generation internet network, one can imagine a plane with ultra HD cameras recording minute details of crop fields. Robots on the ground scan crops for diseases and any aberrations. Sensors constantly monitor soil quality and moisture levels. All this information is shared with drones or robots and they automatically spray pesticides or take other actions to rectify problems. All of this happens without much human intervention. It is simply a few machines “talking” to one another and getting things done.

Another example of IoT could be a sensor that monitors the outside sunlight and triggers a motor which opens and closes the window shades as per the changing light. The data from the sensor is also shared with the house lighting and cooling system that gets directions on when to turn itself on or off. Devices talking to each other and making your home smart with hardly any human intervention whatsoever.

Facial Recognition

Facial recognition is a very exciting technology that is beginning to make its way into our world. With the use of high definition cameras and powerful video processing algorithms, facial recognition can help with security, identity verification, and many more tasks.

Facial recognition uses biometrics in order to map the key facial features as sourced from a photograph or video. It looks for things like the distance between the eyes, the general geometry of your face, the distance between your chin and your forehead, etc. It then compares this mapped data with its existing database and looks for a match.

Facial recognition can help verify identities at a rate much faster than conventional ways. So, places like airports and colleges can benefit from this technology. The key reason for this high efficiency is the fact that no personal interaction is needed to verify an identity. Facial detection and the matching process is quite fast and the technology is easy to deploy with existing technology and setup.

Retail stores can offer personalized deals with facial recognition. Social media websites can automatically tag people on photos or videos using this powerful technology. Mobile phones like the iPhone have already started using facial recognition as an unlocking mechanism. This technology has definitely arrived and will play a growing role in the coming years.