Why Aren’t We Talking about Technology Disruption?

One of the most interesting aspects of modern society is how rapidly we adapt to new technology. Perhaps the best illustration of this is the smartphone. In the short period of a decade, we went from a new invention to the point where the large majority of the American public has a smartphone. Today the smartphone is so pervasive that recent statistics from Pew show that 96% of those under between 18 and 29 have a smartphone.

Innovation is exploding in nearly every field of technology, and the public has gotten so used to change that we barely notice announcements that would have made worldwide headlines a few decades ago. I remembre as a kid when Life Magazine had an issue largely dedicated to nylon and polymers and had the world talking about something that wouldn’t even get noticed today. People seem to accept miracle materials, gene splicing, and self-driving cars as normal technical advances. People now give DNA test kits as Christmas presents. Nobody blinks an eye when big data is used to profile and track us all. We accept cloud computing as just another computer technology. In our little broadband corner of the technology world, the general public has learned that fiber and gigabit speeds are the desired broadband technology.

What I find perhaps particularly interesting is that we don’t talk much about upcoming technologies that will completely change the world. A few technologies get talked to death such as 5G and self-driving cars. But technologists now understand that 5G is, in itself, not a disruptive technology – although it might unleash other disruptive technologies such as ubiquitous sensors throughout our environment. The idea of self-driving cars no longer seems disruptive since I can already achieve the same outcome by calling an Uber. The advent of self-driving semi trucks will be far more disruptive and will lower the cost of the nationwide supply chain when we use fleets of self-driving electric trucks.

I’ve always been intrigued about those who peer into the future and I read everything I can find about upcoming technologies. From the things I read there are a few truly disruptive technologies on the horizon. Consider the following innovations that aren’t too far in the future:

Talking to Computers. This will be the most important breakthrough in history in terms of the interface between humans and technology. In a few short generations, we’ve gone from typing on keyboards, to using a mouse, to using cellphones – but the end game will be talking directly to our computers using natural conversational language. We’ve already seen significant progress with natural language processing and are on a path to be able to converse with computers in the same way we communicate with other people. That will trigger a huge transition in society. Computers will fade into the background since we’ll have the full power of the cloud anywhere that we’re connected to the cloud. Today we get a tiny inkling by seeing how people use Apple Siri or Amazon Alexa – but these are rudimentary voice recognition systems. It’s nearly impossible to predict how mankind will react to having the full power of the web with us all of the time.

Space Elevator. In 2012 the Japanese announced a nationwide goal of building a space elevator by 2050. That goal has now been pulled forward to 2045. A space elevator will be transformational since it will free mankind from the confines of the planet earth. With a space elevator we can cheaply and safely move people and materials to and from space. We can drag up the raw materials needed to build huge space factories that can then take advantage of the mineral riches in the asteroid belt. From there we can colonize the moon and mars, build huge space cities and build spaceships to explore nearby stars. The cost of the space elevator is still estimated to only be around $90 billion, the same as the cost of the high-speed rail system between Osaka and Tokyo.

Alternate Energy. We are in the process of weaning mankind from fossil fuel energy sources. While there is a long way to go, several countries in Europe have the goal to be off carbon fuels within the coming decade. The EU already gets 30% of electricity from alternate energy sources. The big breakthrough might finally come from fusion power. This is something that has been 30 years away my whole adult life, but scientists at MIT and other places have developed the needed magnets that can contain the plasma necessary for a fusion reaction and some scientists are now predicting fusion power is now only 15 years away. Fusion power would supply unlimited non-polluting energy, which would transform the whole world, particularly the third world.

An argument can be made that there are other equally disruptive technologies on the horizon like artificial intelligence, robotics, gene-editing, virtual reality, battery storage, and big data processing. Nothing on the list would be as significant as a self-aware computer – but many scientists still think that’s likely to be far into the future. What we can be sure of is that breakthroughs in technology and science will continue to come at us rapidly from all directions. I wonder if the general public will even notice the mosts important breakthroughs or if change has gotten so ho hum that it’s just an expected part of life.


New Tech November 2014 – Part II

This is the second blog this month on cool new technologies.

Phase Changing Computer Chips. Researchers at the University of Cambridge, the Singapore A*STAR Data-Storage Institute and the Singapore University of Technology and Design have announced a new technology that could increase chip processing speed by as much as 1,000 times. This is possible by replacing silicon with a material that can switch back and forth between electrical states. Such materials are called phase changing materials (PCMs). The researchers have been using a PCM based on a chalcogenide glass, which can be melted and recrystallized in as little as half a nanosecond using appropriate voltage pulses. This process allows each tiny portion of the chip to swap between a crystalline state that is conducting and a glassy state which is insulating, meaning that the chip can be reconfigured on the fly.

In these new chips the logic operations and memory are co-located, rather than separated as they are in silicon-based computers. Currently, the smallest logic and memory devices based on silicon are about 20 nanometres in size. But we’ve reached a limit with silicon chips since electrons leak if the insulating layer is too thin. PCM devices can overcome this size-scaling limit since they have been shown to function down to about two nanometers.

Forever Batteries. Professor Yi Cui and his team of Stanford University have announced a huge breakthrough for batteries. His team has found a way to stabilize lithium, which could result in vastly improved battery performance. This is a big deal because lithium is a highly reactive substance and prone to overheating and catching on fire.

Today’s lithium batteries deal with the instability by using lithium as the cathode and silicon or graphite as the anode. But a battery with lithium for both terminals is far more efficient. Cui and his researchers solved the problem by building ‘nanospheres’, or protective layers of carbon domes on top of the pure lithium anode.

The result of the technology is a staggering improvement in battery life. Current batteries have a coulombic efficiency of about 4%, meaning that they lose 4% of their capacity to be recharged each time and they die after about 25 charges. The new batteries have a coulombic efficiency of nearly 99.99% meaning they can be recharged tens of thousands of times. And the battery is about four times more efficient in terms of the life of a charge. So this means a cellphone charge that will last for several days or an electric car that can be driven nearly 300 miles between charges. And the batteries can be recharged practically forever.

Better Storage Batteries. Imergy Power Systems is making batteries from recycled vanadium. These are large batteries used industrially to store power. The first generation batteries store 200 kilowatt hours of electricity and there are much larger batteries on the way. The big advantage of these batteries is the cost, which is down to $300 per kilowatt hour and dropping.

These are large redox flow batteries that contain a liquid electrolyte. Imergy is claiming that these batteries ought to last ‘forever’ since vanadium can operate in both the negative and positive direction without a chemical reaction.

Nanoparticle Pill. Google is working on a nanoparticle pill that can identify cancer or chemical imbalances in the body. The nanoparticles are really tiny, about 10,000 times thinner than a human hair. In the blood stream they are attracted to and attach to whatever specific chemical or protein they are seeking. By tracking where the nanoparticles congregate, doctors will be able to pinpoint clusters of cancer cells or whatever the markers are looking for.

Space Elevator. Japan’s giant construction company, Obayashi Corporation, has announced plans to build an elevator into space by the year 2050. For those of you who are not science fiction fans, a space elevator is just what it sounds like. It is the construction of a large shaft into space and provides a way to mechanically move materials into and out of space.

Obayashi says that this is going to be possible due to carbon nanotechnology. These new materials are almost a hundred times stronger than steel cables. The plans are to build an elevator that extends almost 60,000 miles into space. Once built, robotic cars could be used to climb and descend on the carbon shaft to ferry people and materials affordably into space. This would provide for an affordable way to let mankind build the huge ships needed to explore other worlds or to bring raw materials from space back to earth.