World has seen rapid technological progress occur over a matter of decades; progress which has taken place at virtually every level of society and throughout the economy. As individuals and in groups we use a multitude of devices every day. These enable us to discover previously unexplored places, coordinate our activities at home and in the workplace, and communicate with each other instantaneously. Why do we surround ourselves with such technology? The answer is straightforward: technological advancement carries with it the promise of saving time, or doing more in the same amount of time. In short, innovation offers us the opportunity to ‘do things more efficiently’.
Innovation is looked to for stimulation of the growth of new industries and the creation of new jobs, but the wider impacts of innovation and technological progress must also be acknowledged. Assessing such impacts has however been historically difficult and is often cited as a priority issue for policy-makers. The scientific foresight discipline offers hope for a range of new policy-making tools which aim to improve understanding of the possible long-term consequences of our actions, with particular reference to potential impacts arising from the development and deployment of technological innovations.
Ten technologies which could change our lives:
Autonomous Vehicles (AV):
Two self-driving prototype cars, one operated by Google and the other by Delphi Automotive, had a close call on a Silicon Valley street, a Delphi executive told Reuters.
It was believed to be the first such incident involving two vehicles specially equipped for automated driving.
The incident occurred 23rd June 2015 on San Antonio Road in Palo Alto, said John Absmeier, director of Delphi’s Silicon Valley lab and global business director for the company’s automated driving program, who was a passenger in one of the cars.
The technology for autonomous vehicles has developed to such an extent that the EU is focusing now on development of the infrastructure required to facilitate further deployment of this technology.
Graphene is the first 2D nano-material produced by scientists. It is processed from Graphite, a material that is abundant on the earth, and has a wide range of applications. It should allow the creation of potentially ultra-light and resistant composite materials with the potential to replace steel. Graphene is also extremely electrically and thermally conductive, has a high elasticity and is virtually impermeable to all molecules. There is significant potential for graphene to be used in high speed electronics and optic circuits, photovoltaic cells, bio-sensors, and in developing more sophisticated catalysing and filtering solutions for the chemical industry.
As mentioned, graphene’s many advantageous properties, particularly its lightweight and flexible nature, make it an ideal material for use with many of the technological innovations of tomorrow. It has been foreseen that more flexible screens could be manufactured using graphene. There have also been proposals to use graphene to create night-vision contact lenses. In both case the thinness and light weight of graphene is the enabling factor in developing these technological applications.
Graphene will also enable further innovation of electronic circuits, particularly for its heat-conductive properties. The combination of a graphene coating on copper wiring in electronic circuits would make it possible for smaller computer chips to be developed that are more resistant to the concomitant increase in heat output. Graphene alters the structure of copper being used to allow heat to flow more readily and hence design faster circuits, making it possible to build more powerful computer systems using more transistors.
Researchers believe they will also be able to produce graphene-based transistors capable of operating at much higher frequencies than silicon. Graphene could also be used to produce more effective photo-detectors in high-powered supercomputers that make use of light, instead of electrons, to transmit data. Graphene could also modify the properties of other materials, for example developing ‘nano-filtration’ that exploits graphene’s impermeability which would revolutionise the effectiveness of desalination and purification technologies and processes, particularly in less-developed countries.
3D printing is an additive manufacturing technology for making three-dimensional objects of almost any shape using a digital model. The process is computer-driven with items being built up from nothing, typically through the deposition of successive layers of materials of plastic, metal, wood, concrete, etc. The technology is already in use in a number of sectors, most notably in prototyping and in various sectors as diverse as jewellery manufacturing and aerospace industries and the number of applications is rapidly increasing. In particular, the use of graphene as a material for 3D printing would open up the number of items able to be produced in this way, for example manufacturing entire computers and solar panels.
A macro-level impact of 3D printing could be the way in which it shifts our consumer-based economy and the societal behaviours associated with this. There is the potential for a mass democratisation of buying habits as individuals are able to print their own products, to bespoke specifications, and in the comfort of their own homes. Activity would be shifted from traditional shopping methods, either by visiting shopping high streets or ordering goods online, to a tailored and highly personalised shopping experience.
The design of the product, rather than the manufacturing process itself, is what consumers will be paying for and thus there is the potential for a design-led cottage-industry of 3D printers to emerge. Perhaps most significantly, the widespread use of 3D printing could open the floodgates of creative innovation.
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs):
The world of education is changing through the proliferation of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). These are educational courses accessed by participants through online means, typically via personal computers, and often hosted on bespoke platforms. These can be followed by thousands of students simultaneously in contrast to traditional methods of teaching with much smaller ‘class sizes’. In principle the technology is based on the premise that the internet can be used for open education around the world and, at least in terms of accessing the course, is often free of charge. The emergence of MOOCs can be traced to around 2012 when tuition fee increases for higher education, most notably in the USA and the UK, drove interest in ways to make education more accessible. In Europe the use of MOOCs is less common, owing to greater public funding of higher education whilst interest in this technology has spiked in the US which dominates the global distribution of use of MOOCs.
The emergence of MOOCs is expected to transform the way in which we both deliver and perceive education, particularly higher education. Whilst not a technology in itself, MOOCs combine existing forms of highly innovative communication technologies such as social media, and could disrupt education practices similar to the use of ‘torrenting’ for downloading music and film. A clear impact of MOOCs has been significant cost reductions for education, widening access to sections of the population who might not have previously availed of higher education. For example, last year at Georgia Technology University, a virtual MOOC for Computer Science was re-launched at less than 20% of its original cost to participants.
Virtual currencies such as Bitcoin are expanding the frontiers of our digital economy. How can their potential to stimulate a new form of economy be balanced with the cyber-safety needs of citizens? So-called ‘virtual currencies’ have gained much attention in recent years and this emerging technology offers significant opportunities for policy-making. Electronic schemes, linked to traditional money formats, have a clear legal foundation and basis in established institutions. They derive value through the implicit support of national and, increasingly, supra-national governments and institutions. A virtual currency such as Bitcoin relies instead upon records of transactions to be noted in an anonymous online ledger known as a ‘blockchain’. This prevents double-spending of Bitcoins and removes the need for third-party verification of transactions, a function traditionally performed by financial institutions such as banks.
Bitcoin is a virtual currency simply representing an electronic ‘peer-to-peer’ (direct from sender to recipient) payment network. The system is operated by users sending Bitcoins to each other, stored in a ‘digital wallet’, in exchange for the sale of goods or services. A transaction is created by transmission via the Bitcoin network and recorded on the ‘blockchain’, grouped in ‘blocks’, which is completely accessible to all using the network. A transaction is then confirmed within a block of current transactions (subsequent transactions confirming the integrity of previous ones). This process is completed by ‘miners’ using substantial amounts of computing power to process increasingly lengthy blockchains and receiving a Bitcoin reward accordingly. The mining process is thus becoming increasingly complicated, and resource-demanding, because data chunks to be processed are now larger within the system. This is programmed so as to only pay operational costs to miners to maintain the system.
The key element of many virtual currencies, and in particular the Bitcoin system, is the anonymity of the users of the system. It is due to this level of encryption that a virtual currency such as Bitcoin is in principle much more secure than using cash, credit and debit cards or direct money transfers between traditional banks. Bitcoin is in fact the first global electronic currency to have even been developed.
Technologies impact mankind and change the way we look at certain things. Disruptive innovations will transform the human lives in time to come.
Please read and suggest more such technologies which can be included in upcoming posts.