By Monika Ghosh and Sharon Lewis This article is the last of a four-part Tech’s Year in Review series reviewing developments across industries in 2020. It discusses the world of healthtech and biotech, foodtech and agritech, and sustainability. This article is the last of a four-part [...]
Another decade has come and gone. As we enter the 2020s, we will inevitably be confronted by a host of new technologies that will improve our efficiency, alter our relationship with nature, and perhaps even challenge our perception of what it means to be human.
Jumpstart skims the surface of this future by exploring 20 technologies that will come to define or see dramatic advancements in the next decade, reshaping the world and our role in it. –MC
Smart Food Labels
We may be a species consumed by our obsession with food, but we haven’t done well in our efforts to manage its production. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, about one-third of the food produced for human consumption is wasted annually–largely a consequence of poor planning on the part of supply chain actors. More devastating still, the organization estimates that around 25,000 people die from hunger every single day.
Food waste mainly occurs at the end of the supply chain, where consumer behavior plays a major role. Expiration dates are often inaccurate and fail to reflect the actual state of the product, leading to the frequent disposal of perfectly edible food.
On the other side of the coin, countless are affected by and even die from the more-than 250 foodborne illnesses caused by bacteria, viruses, and parasites (CDC).
Scientists are now working to commercialize smart food labels that have the ability to determine freshness and safety. They can also provide manufacturers with more accurate data for assessing their production cycles, reducing the amount of wastage in the system.
Researchers from the University of Alberta have developed a label that changes color upon detection of a known pathogen. The labels are made from a reactive polymer layered with biosensors to identify specific molecules–similar to the workings of a pregnancy test.
Another example is London-based Mimica Touch; its labels use temperature to determine the freshness of juice, dairy, and red meat, where they will turn from smooth to bumpy if the product is spoiled.
MarketWatch expects the market to reach US$16 million by 2024. –MC
Everyone wants to solve climate change. Companies have pumped billions into finding production methods that leave less of a carbon footprint, but it hasn’t been enough. The 2019 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report suggests that reducing emissions to a sustainable level would require transitions across industries of an “unprecedented” scale, necessitating “negative emissions” solutions like carbon sequestration to remove the carbon dioxide we’ve already created.
There’s more than one way to sequester carbon, whether it’s afforestation, reforestation, or capturing the CO2 from waste-intensive processes and pumping it deep into the ground to be absorbed into rock. There is even a carbon-sequestering raincoat made of an algae-based alternative plastic.
The concern with many of these methods of removing carbon from the atmosphere is that they may produce more CO2 than they absorb. Greenhouse gases are also continually produced through other human activities, such as transportation. However, companies and researchers seem to be leaning toward the potential of direct air capture (DAC), although it’s a resource-intensive process.
In 2019, several oil and gas giants, including ExxonMobil, Occidental, and Chevron, put their money on DAC startups in large investment deals. The next hurdle now lies in scaling carbon capture up to a point where it could help the world avert a climate emergency. –NB
Industrial fertilizers used for large-scale crops have a nasty reputation for polluting the ground and waterways with large doses of nitrogen. These chemicals generally haven’t been absorbed by the crops because they’re not needed, or the soil isn’t able to support crop growth at all.
Unabsorbed chemicals runoff into rivers and oceans after rainfall, where they lead to excessive algae growth that monopolizes oxygen and creates large ‘dead zones’ in the ocean. Smart fertilizers can address this problem. Developed by multiple producers of agriculture products, these capsules can adjust the nutrient release rate based on factors such as soil temperature and soil moisture.
Haifa Group, an Israel-based chemicals company, is now manufacturing a polymer-coated capsule containing plant nutrients that slowly degrades based on the soil temperature. After all the contents of the capsule have been released, the shell itself breaks down and decomposes.
The invention of smart fertilizers means that there will be higher yields, and a higher level of nutrients will reach the plants. –NB
Awareness around data privacy has skyrocketed in recent years, but little has been done by tech companies to appease users’ worries aside from empty assurances. The solution could be zero-knowledge proof (ZKP), a cryptographic protocol that enables data verification by a third party without the user actually having to provide the data.
For example, x wants to enter an online competition. A ZKP registration system would allow the organizer to know that x is over 18-years-old without x having to reveal their date of birth.
Researchers from MIT and the University of Toronto first proposed this method in 1985 with the publication of “The Knowledge Complexity of Interactive Proof-Systems.” The past few years have seen a surge of interest in the technology, primarily due to its applications in the blockchain space.
While public blockchains like Bitcoin and Ethereum claim that their transactions are anonymous, they are–in fact–pseudonymous because individuals are represented by a string of letters and numbers known as ‘addresses’ (MIT Technology Review). Thus, users’ identities could be compromised should their blockchain address be linked to their physical address.
Zcash was the first cryptocurrency to use ZKP to ensure that information about the sender and recipient is entirely hidden during a transaction.
ZKP is garnering interest from large banks that were previously skeptical about digital currencies, as it could significantly lower the threat of a security breach and allow users to take back control of their data. –MC
In 1964, Harold Eugene “Doc” Edgerton made waves in the scientific community for his manipulation of photographic exposure to capture a bullet in motion at a million frames per second. Today, if the trajectory of Edgerton’s bullet was slowed down using Femto Photography, it would take an entire year to watch the event unfold.
Unveiled by MIT Professor Ramesh Raskar at a TED talk in 2012, Femto Photography is an imaging technique so powerful, it can capture the propagation of light. Operating at a trillion frames per second, Femto Photography illuminates scenes using intense bursts of light, which then reflect off surfaces and return to the camera at different time intervals. In a process much like stop-motion animation, scientists can analyze these intervals in multiple images and create a 3D reconstruction of the scene (MIT, 2013).
While it’s still a prototype, the technology could have far-reaching implications when commercialized. They could film around corners, locate objects hidden from sight in military and rescue operations, and improve medical imaging techniques by helping doctors visualize areas normally inaccessible by catheters. Interestingly, they could even lead to the creation of new art forms and artistic methods (Velten et al., 2013). –KA
Dreams of commercial supersonic travel may have been benched after the demise of the Concorde, but Vactrains are offering newfound hope. Vactrains, also known as evacuated tube transport, operate in tunnels, where the air is removed to create a vacuum in a bid to eliminate air resistance.
While they were first conceptualized by American engineer Robert Goddard in 1904 (Gizmodo), the idea took off in the 2010s, with entrepreneurs like Elon Musk investing time and money into making it a reality. Musk’s project, known as Hyperloop, combines maglev (magnetic levitation) technology with the Vactrain concept to circumvent the speed barrier created by resistance.
Vactrains could theoretically exceed speeds of 4,000 mph and would be noiseless even when breaking the sound barrier. While Musk’s project seems to have been overshadowed by his other entrepreneurial endeavours, companies such as Virgin Hyperloop One are promising operational systems as early as this year.
Unfortunately, only one of Hyperloop One’s prototype pods has reached speeds of 240 mph (The New York Times), missing the target speed of 670 mph by more than half. While such missteps undercut investor confidence, a fully realized prototype could be on the horizon in a few years. –KA
Bioprinting involves 3D printers that utilize biomaterial–like a patient’s cells or adult stem cells–to create structures, such as organs, skin, and bones. The cells used in the process are cultivated into ‘bioink’ for the printer to use and are held in shape by a dissolvable outer shell.
The technology has the potential to transform the transplant space, as printing organs will not only reduce lengthy wait times, but also reduce the chances of the body rejecting a donated organ. While the technology is still in the research stage, scientists in multiple countries have achieved breakthroughs in the field. Techniques have been discovered for bioprinted bone, cartilage, corneas, skin, hearts, and more.
Up until recently, the main obstacle to commercializing bioprinting was that most 3D printers lack the necessary speed to print an entire organ or organic structure without the cells dying. Printing at only a few millimeters per second, it took days to produce the structure–by which point the cells expired.
However, researchers at the Vienna University of Technology have managed to engineer an exponentially faster printing process. It has a much higher chance of keeping the cells alive until they can be transplanted, putting this technology on a faster track to mainstream adoption (Science Daily).
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Bioengineered Organs Initiative are also developing 3D ‘bioprinters’ that print biomaterials and cells within three-dimensional tissue constructs or even whole organs. –NB
The spread of solar panels has contributed immensely to the renewable energy movement, but having them installed on roofs is a troublesome task that many families don’t want to undertake. Luckily, something even more effective may be on the horizon.
In 2017, researchers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) developed a form of paint that can absorb solar energy. They also reported that it could absorb moisture from the air, split water into hydrogen and oxygen, and collect the hydrogen in fuel cells to be used later.
RMIT’s find is the latest in several iterations of solar paint. ‘Quantum dot photovoltaics,’ developed by researchers at the University of Toronto in 2013, is said to be more efficient and cheaper to manufacture than regular solar cells. Similarly, experiments at the University of Sheffield in 2014 led to the creation of ‘spray-on solar cells’ using a mineral called Perovskite.
What makes RMIT’s paint special is that, in addition to generating solar power, it collects hydrogen–a clean form of fuel. If scaled up to a commercial level, its potential lies in painting areas that usually wouldn’t get enough sunlight to justify installing a solar panel, allowing all surfaces–from fences to treehouses–to generate clean energy.
At present, solar paint is conceptual more than anything and unlikely to be available in the local hardware store anytime soon. However, it’s an exciting development that could offer solar energy that is less expensive and more efficient. –NB
Virtual Retinal Display
We have seen Tony Stark using retinal display technology when saving the world. Excitingly, virtual retinal displays (VRDs) actually exist in real life. According to Augmented Reality by Jon Peddie, retinal scanning displays involve projecting a pattern of photons directly onto the retina. In doing so, the viewer is able to see a conventional image floating right in front of their eyes.
Currently, VRD technology is widely used in augmented reality (AR) glasses, which have made significant strides in the past decade. ‘Pinlight Display,’ AR eyeglasses developed by the University of North Carolina and NVIDIA in 2014, allows the potential for a field of view greater than 100 degrees–a massive breakthrough compared to the current commercial AR glasses that have a field of view of 40 degrees (MIT Technology Review).
When we think of smart glasses, we quickly imagine bulky eyewear that are not convenient for daily use. Pinlight Display’s design only consists of two simple hardware components (i.e., an LCD panel and an array of light sources that are placed directly in front of the eye), making the smart glasses more portable and lightweight (MIT Technology Review).
Andrew Maimone, one of Pinlight Display’s developers, hopes that the technology will enable a future where we see “computer graphics more as an integral part of our visual system, rather than something that exists only on external screens” (MIT Technology Review). Improved AR glasses will undoubtedly accelerate the spread of VRD technology in our daily lives. –JC
Modern wastewater treatment is the foundation of public sanitation and prevents the spread of infectious diseases such as cholera, but around 4.5 billion people still do not have access to such infrastructure (Gates Foundation). Displaced populations, including those living in refugee camps and slums, are most affected.
Studies have found that a lack of toilet access correlates to the perpetuation of poverty and structural inequities, including poor health, stunted education opportunities, and violence (Global Partnership for Education). An underdeveloped sewage system also forces the dumping of human waste in areas that risk the contamination of drinking water and food sources.
The Gates Foundation was among the first aid organizations to bring this issue to light with the launch of the ‘Reinvent the Toilet Challenge’ in 2012, where it provided grants to university research departments working to find a solution. Other non-profit organizations and social impact funds have also supported sanitation technologies in recent years, and broader adoption has arrived.
Last year, the Foundation revealed that its Helbling toilet–which turns human waste into fertilizer–is ready for production and distribution. It projects the market for the toilet to reach £4.5billion by 2030 (Gates Foundation).
Founded by MIT researchers in 2016, change:WATER Labs has similarly developed a flushing toilet that does not require water, power, or plumbing. It uses a proprietary polymer that dehydrates sewage to separate solids from liquids, making waste treatment more manageable for vulnerable regions. The toilets are environmentally safe and can be produced on a large scale and at a low cost. –MC
With the advent of smartwatches and fitness trackers, wearable technology has evolved from a techno-utopian fantasy into an increasingly common fixture in everyday life. As the hype around these devices tempers with time, companies around the world are investing resources in what’s positioned to be the next industry game changer: smart clothing (Juniper Research, 2018).
In 2015, Google unveiled the Commuter x Jacquard Jacket in collaboration with Levi Strauss, which could connect to smartphones to screen phone calls, control music playback, and help with navigation. Since then, smart clothing that can monitor the wearer’s health and even direct workouts has been commercialized.
Sensoria has a range of fitness socks that collect data on the wearer’s running techniques and offer tips to improve style and speed. Alternatively, Wearable X produces yoga pants that connect to an iOS app and correct the wearer’s form using haptic feedback.
However, smart clothes aren’t nearly as ubiquitous as wearable devices. Google’s Jacquard doesn’t provide much more control than a standard set of Bluetooth earphones, and clothes that offer health analytics provide the same solutions as most fitness trackers.
Moreover, the embedded circuitry and external attachments required to offer a complete experience make smart clothes more expensive than their traditional counterparts.
Although there’s still a ways to go, advances in functionality could turn smart clothing into a wardrobe staple. With the current pace of innovation, that doesn’t seem like a far-fetched prospect. –KA
New Internet Delivery
In October 2019, Elon Musk tweeted using Starlink for the first time, hinting that our future Internet will be space-based. Starlink is a satellite-based network created by SpaceX that can beam high-speed Internet anywhere on Earth.
According to Satellite-Based Internet: A Tutorial, satellites are used to connect heterogeneous network segments and provide omnipresent Internet access, regardless of one’s geographical location. The system consists of space and ground segments, allowing access to areas that are not served by a fiber or cable connection.
SpaceX has launched 60 Starlink satellites to date and is planning to launch a total of 12,000 in the coming years. The company is confident about offering Internet services in the U.S. by mid-2020.
With our insatiable demand for data, private companies are competing to launch thousands of satellites. Apart from SpaceX, there’s OneWeb–a startup that launched six satellites in April 2019 and is scheduled to begin service in the Arctic in late 2020, and globally in 2021.
Amazon recently launched Project Kuiper and is proposing to launch and operate 3,326 satellites. Although the company has not disclosed many details, Adam Jonas from Morgan Stanley predicted that Project Kuiper is a US$100 billion opportunity (CNBC, 2019).
In the coming decades, we may witness a space rivalry among tech conglomerates in competing to be the best service provider. –JC
DNA Data Storage
Cloud software firm DOMO found that more than 280,000 Instagram stories were posted per minute in 2019. It’s no surprise that we are facing a severe data shortage problem, which will only worsen in the coming decade.
According to Megan Scudellri’s Inner Workings: DNA for data storage and computing, DNA helices are easy to amplify and modify, and are generally quite stable. DNA is made up of four chemical bases–adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine–which can be encoded into four different pieces of information instead of two, as is seen in traditional binary silicon systems. This means that DNA can store more data compared to the classic silicon chip.
Scientists are diligently exploring the feasibility of DNA storage. Named by TIME as one of the best inventions of 2019, Catalog–the biotech startup behind DNA Data Writer, prints data on synthetic strands of DNA. It has successfully stored 16 gigabytes of English Wikipedia text onto a DNA strand, which is a promising start for the technology.
Currently recording data at four megabits per second, Catalog is working on hitting its target of storing 125 gigabytes a day. The company is planning to provide DNA data storage services for the federal government, IT companies, and the entertainment industry, with the aim to start commercial pilots by this year. –JC
Much to the surprise of unsuspecting fans, Tupac Shakur made headlines for his appearance at Coachella in 2012, almost 16 years after his death. Today, the 2D display technology behind that feat has devolved into little more than a parlor trick, and more sophisticated volumetric displays are taking the world by storm.
While traditional holograms scatter light onto 2D surfaces, volumetric displays produce images in three-dimensional space. Some variants use laser beams to trap and manipulate single particles of cellulose in the air, as another set of laser beams project light onto them. When the illuminated particle moves, it’s perceived as a suspended image. Others use lasers to ionize air particles and create glowing plasma dots, which produce the image. Volumetric displays can be viewed from any angle and are autostereoscopic–that is, they don’t require apparatuses like 3D glasses or headsets and are visible to the naked eye (Nature, 2017).
Although the technology hasn’t been commercialized due to scalability and safety issues, it seems promising, to say the least. Not only could it be the next step in interactive advertisement, but it could also be used to create training simulations for doctors or soldiers, help track satellites, and act as a new medium for artistic expression. –KA
Audio advertising is undeniably the next big trend in the world of marketing. In his book Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear, Steve Goodman writes that holosonic and directional sound devices can effectively facilitate micro-locational targeting for audio advertising. When individuals enter the zone of the sound beam, it will sound as if someone were speaking to them, even though no one else in the vicinity will hear the sound (Goodman, 2012).
Founded by Dr. F. Joseph Pompei, Holosonic Research Labs focuses on manufacturing the directional sound system, Audio Spotlight. It has already been used in supermarkets in New Zealand to promote a fair trade brand, All Good Bananas. Using the technology, manufacturers can deliver detailed information on the product to customers and encourage certain behaviors, such as the purchase of environmentally friendly and fair trade products.
Directional sound technology breaks the mold of traditional visual advertising, allowing pertinent information to be shared with the customer while allowing for a serene environment. Holosonics has a wide range of applications outside marketing as well, such as use in museums and galleries. –JC
The effectiveness of D-methionine (D-met) pills in preventing hearing loss is giving hope to veterans and construction workers who have been affected by the biological damage their occupations may cause.
Audiologist Dr. Kathleen Campbell found in 2011 that D-met is able to protect against noise-induced hearing loss when tested on chinchillas and cancer patients who take chemotherapy drugs that cause hearing loss. In 2016, she conducted a test on drill sergeant instructor trainees during their 11-day weapons training and found a similar effect.
Cells in the inner ear are affected by prolonged sound exposure and when these cells die, the individual’s hearing will be degraded. D-met stimulates the body to produce glutathione, a natural antioxidant that may neutralize free radicals after noise exposure (Campbell, 2011). Preclinical studies show that D-Met, which can be found in dairy foods, can reverse hearing loss up to seven hours after noise cessation (Campbell, 2011).
The future usage of D-met will not be confined to adults working in specific industries. According to a WHO report from 2019, almost 50% of people aged 12 to 35 years are at risk of hearing loss due to prolonged and excessive exposure to music from personal audio devices. The problem of hearing loss is increasingly affecting adolescents and even children.
Campbell partnered with Jennifer Seibert from GAP Ventures in 2015 to establish MetArmor, Inc., which is developing a commercial formulation of D-met (Translational Research in Audiology, Neurotology, and Hearing Sciences, 2016). –JC
Finding a sustainable, limitless energy source is a narrative that’s told again and again in science fiction. While its origin in these stories is typically alien, scientists are harboring an energy source that’s much closer to Earth. In fact, you don’t have to look further than your windowsill.
Photosynthesis is the process by which autotrophs convert carbon dioxide, water, and light into glucose and oxygen through the transfer of electrons. Artificial photosynthesis (AP), by contrast, splits water to create hydrogen and oxygen using chemical manipulations. The resulting hydrogen can fuel electric cars, store solar energy more efficiently than cell batteries, and be converted into energy-dense hydrocarbon fuels like methane and ethanol (Futurism).
German powerhouses Siemens and Evonik launched an ambitious project, Rheticus II, in October last year. It will see the completion of a plant next year that will use carbon to produce butanol and hexanol–to be used for “research purposes” at this stage (Siemens).
The commercialization of AP-derived liquid fuels will take time. Prashant Jain, a chemist from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has achieved the conversion of carbon into propane and methane. He believes “we’ll need at least a decade to find practical CO2-sequestration, CO2-fixation, fuel-formation technologies that are economically feasible,” but says that “every insight into the process improves the pace at which the research community can move” (Science Alert).
While we are a ways away from seeing AP impact the energy sector, we’re entering a crucial time for the technology, as we grapple with the escalating urgency of climate change. –MC
A discipline that intersects biology, computer science, and electrical engineering, neuromorphic computing is bringing us one step closer to the AI of our imaginations. The field, which is in its infancy, involves designing computing architectures that mimic the structure of a human brain–an organ that carries out a volume of synaptic connections that’s comparable to a one trillion bit-per-second computer processor (The Human Memory).
A neuromorphic chip can perform parallel computations that were only possible on a supercomputer, and has groundbreaking pattern recognition and deep learning potential (MIT, 2018).
The technology’s origins trace back to Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit will double every two years–a paradigm that has guided the pace of the semiconductor industry. Manufacturers have been using ‘process node scaling’ to increase transistor density until the early 2010s, but have since been struggling to further shrink nanometer processors. Currently, progress is mainly limited to improving the efficiency of existing transistors.
Recognizing that process node scaling no longer makes good economic sense, Intel introduced Pohoiki Beach last year, which is a 64-chip neuromorphic system that can crunch data one thousand times faster than specialized processors while using less power. Researchers see it as having the potential to meet the speed and efficiency demands of emerging technologies, such as autonomous vehicles and smart homes.
It’s still difficult to predict when neuromorphic computing will be commercialized, but the diversification of computing architectures is a promising start for machines of the future. –MC
Composed of microelectromechanical (MEM) sensors known for their microscopic size (Kahn et al., 2000), Smart Dust packs quite a punch as a wireless communication system. Not only can it remain suspended in the air for hours to detect atmospheric conditions, it can also store, process, and transmit this data seamlessly.
Positioned at the intersection of electronics and nanotechnology, Smart Dust can be engineered to be invisible to the naked eye.
Although it’s still in its nascent stages, Smart Dust could be commercialized within the next decade if privacy concerns are addressed. Many are wary of being monitored without their consent if the technology falls into the wrong hands.
Potential applications of the technology have expanded far beyond the military uses proposed in the 1990s when it was first conceptualized by American think tank, RAND (Hsu, et al. 1998). By collecting data on conditions such as light, vibration, temperature, and the magnetic field, Smart Dust could help to detect manufacturing defects, assist in rescue missions, monitor habitats, and aid space exploration (ICEMTE, 2017).
As companies like Cisco and IBM invest in their development (Forbes, 2018), Smart Dust systems could revolutionize wireless communication and open up avenues for data collection that are as yet unexplored. –KA
Researchers today are developing bionic limbs that far surpass traditional prostheses, allowing for better movement and, in the case of the bionic hand, even granting the user a sense of touch.
The Bionic Leg, developed by researchers from the University of Utah, features force and torque sensors, accelerometers, and gyroscopes. The corresponding computer processor uses AI to determine the user’s rhythms, motions, step length, and walking speed. It activates motors that power the leg, providing a push that makes it easier to walk upstairs and navigate obstacles, significantly reducing the strain on the body.
Research groups in Switzerland and Italy have created bionic hands that use electrodes to deliver sensory information to the brain. The system involves analyzing the user’s intentions, providing real-time feedback on the hand’s progress, and converting that information into electrical stimuli.
The University of Utah conducted a similar project using electrodes to map out sensory reactions caused by external stimuli. The map was then programmed into the bionic hand, creating a close approximation of the reactions of a natural hand.
Bionics is a game-changer for the prosthetics industry. Leg prosthetics are heavy and don’t adequately take the pressure off the leg stump, making it difficult for the body to walk for long periods. Also, many people abandon hand prosthetics due to the sheer frustration of operating a body part with no sense of touch.
When produced on a large scale, the technology could dramatically elevate the quality of life for amputees and those in need of artificial limbs. –NB