Future technologies: ideas that will change our world
We don’t realise it because we’ve lived through it, but the rate of progress over the last half century has been abnormal – staggering in fields as broad as computing, medicine, communications and materials science.
Still, nobody has a personal jetpack that runs on perpetual energy, so the work must continue. We’ve put our futurologist’s far-seeing goggles on and put together a list of some of the most exciting future technology that will change our world. From bionic human beings to technology that could fix the climate crisis, these are some of the biggest of big ideas.
Lab-made dairy products
You’ve heard of cultured “meat” and Wagyu steaks grown cell by cell in a laboratory, but what about other animal-based foodstuffs? A growing number of biotech companies around the world are investigating lab-made dairy, including milk, ice-cream, cheese and eggs. And more than one think they’ve cracked it.
The dairy industry is not environmentally friendly, not even close. It’s responsible for 4 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions, more than air travel and shipping combined, and demand is growing for a greener splash to pour into our tea cups and cereal bowls.
Compared with meat, milk isn’t actually that difficult to create in a lab. Rather than grow it from stem cells, most researchers attempt to produce it in a process of fermentation, looking to produce the milk proteins whey and casein. Some products are already at market in the US, from companies such as Perfect Day, with ongoing work focused on reproducing the mouthfeel and nutritional benefits of regular cow’s milk.
Beyond that, researchers are working on lab-produced mozzarella that melts perfectly on top of a pizza, as well other cheeses and ice-cream.
Digital “twins” that track your health
In Star Trek, where many of our ideas of future technology germinated, human beings can walk into the medbay and have their entire body digitally scanned for signs of illness and injury. Doing that in real life would, say the makers of Q Bio, improve health outcomes and alleviate the load on doctors at the same time.
The US company has built a scanner that will measure hundreds of biomarkers in around an hour, from hormone levels to the fat building up in your liver to the markers of inflammation or any number of cancers. It intends to use this data to produce a 3D digital avatar of a patient’s body – known as a digital twin – that can be tracked over time and updated with each new scan.
Q Bio CEO Jeff Kaditz hopes it will lead to a new era of preventative, personalised medicine in which the vast amounts of data collected not only help doctors prioritise which patients need to be seen most urgently, but also to develop more sophisticated ways of diagnosing illness. Read an interview with him here.
Sustainable living is becoming a priority for individuals squaring up to the realities of the climate crisis, but what about eco-friendly dying? Death tends to be a carbon-heavy process, one last stamp of our ecological footprint. The average cremation reportedly releases 400kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, for example. So what’s a greener way to go?
In Washington State in the US, you could be composted instead. Bodies are laid in chambers with bark, soil, straw and other compounds that promote natural decomposition. Within 30 days, your body is reduced to soil that can be returned to a garden or woodland. Recompose, the company behind the process, claims it uses an eighth of the carbon dioxide of a cremation.
An alternative technology uses fungi. In 2019, the late actor Luke Perry was buried in a bespoke “mushroom suit” designed by a start-up called Coeio. The company claims its suit, made with mushrooms and other microorganisms that aid decomposition and neutralise toxins that are realised when a body usually decays.
Most alternative ways of disposing of our bodies after death are not based on new technology; they’re just waiting for societal acceptance to catch up. Another example is alkaline hydrolysis, which involves breaking the body down into its chemical components over a six-hour process in a pressurised chamber. It’s legal in a number of US states and uses fewer emissions compared with more traditional methods.
Bionic eyes have been a mainstay of science fiction for decades, but now real-world research is beginning to catch up with far-sighted storytellers. A raft of technologies is coming to market that restore sight to people with different kinds of vision impairment.
In January 2021, Israeli surgeons implanted the world’s first artificial cornea into a bilaterally blind, 78-year-old man. When his bandages were removed, the patient could read and recognise family members immediately. The implant also fuses naturally to human tissue without the recipient’s body rejecting it.
Likewise in 2020, Belgian scientists developed an artificial iris fitted to smart contact lenses that correct a number of vision disorders. And scientists are even working on wireless brain implants that bypass the eyes altogether.
Researchers at Montash University in Australia are working on trials for a system whereby users wear a pair of glasses fitted with a camera. This sends data directly to the implant, which sits on the surface of the brain and gives the user a rudimentary sense of sight.
Airports for drones and flying taxis
Our congested cities are in desperate need of a breather and relief may come from the air as opposed to the roads. Plans for a different kind of transport hub – one for delivery drones and electric air-taxis – are becoming a reality, with the first Urban Air Port receiving funding from the UK government.
It’s being built in Coventry. The hub will be a pilot scheme and hopefully a proof of concept for the company behind it. Powered completely off-grid by a hydrogen generator, the idea is to remove the need for as many delivery vans and personal cars on our roads, replacing them with a clean alternative in the form of a new type of small aircraft, with designs being developed by Huyundai and Airbus, amongst others.
Infrastructure is going to be important. Organisations like the Civil Aviation Authority are looking into the establishment of air corridors that might link a city centre with a local airport or distribution centre.
Smart sutures that detect infections
How does a doctor know when a patient’s wound is infected? Well, they could wait for the patient to start displaying signs of an infection, or they could talk to a high school student from Ohio who has developed an ingenious and lifesaving invention.
At the age of 17, Dasia Taylor invented sutures that change colour from bright red to dark purple when a wound becomes infected, detecting a change in the skin’s pH level. When a wound from an injury or surgery becomes infected, its pH rises from 5 to 9. Taylor found that beetroot juice naturally changes colour at a pH of 9, and used that as a dye for suture material.
While other solutions are available – smart sutures coated with a conductive material can sense the status of a wound by changes in electrical resistance and send a message to a smartphone – these are less helpful in developing countries where smartphone use is not widespread.
Energy storing bricks
Scientists have found a way to store energy in the red bricks that are used to build houses. Researchers led by Washington University in St Louis, in Missouri, US, have developed a method that can turn the cheap and widely available building material into “smart bricks” that can store energy like a battery.
Although the research is still in the proof-of-concept stage, the scientists claim that walls made of these bricks “could store a substantial amount of energy” and can “be recharged hundreds of thousands of times within an hour”.
The researchers developed a method to convert red bricks into a type of energy storage device called a supercapacitor. This involved putting a conducting coating, known as Pedot, onto brick samples, which then seeped through the fired bricks’ porous structure, converting them into “energy storing electrodes”.
Iron oxide, which is the red pigment in the bricks, helped with the process, the researchers said.
Sweat powered smartwatches
Engineers at the University of Glasgow have developed a new type of flexible supercapacitor, which stores energy, replacing the electrolytes found in conventional batteries with sweat. It can be fully charged with as little as 20 microlitres of fluid and is robust enough to survive 4,000 cycles of the types of flexes and bends it might encounter in use.
The device works by coating polyester cellulose cloth in a thin layer of a polymer, which acts as the supercapacitor’s electrode. As the cloth absorbs its wearer’s sweat, the positive and negative ions in the sweat interact with the polymer’s surface, creating an electrochemical reaction which generates energy.
“Conventional batteries are cheaper and more plentiful than ever before but they are often built using unsustainable materials which are harmful to the environment,” says Professor Ravinder Dahiya, head of the Bendable Electronics and Sensing Technologies (Best) group, based at the University of Glasgow’s James Watt School of Engineering.
“That makes them challenging to dispose of safely and potentially harmful in wearable devices, where a broken battery could spill toxic fluids on to skin. “What we’ve been able to do for the first time is show that human sweat provides a real opportunity to do away with those toxic materials entirely, with excellent charging and discharging performance.
Self-healing ‘living concrete’
Scientists have developed what they call living concrete by using sand, gel and bacteria. Researchers said this building material has structural load-bearing function, is capable of self-healing and is more environmentally friendly than concrete – which is the second most-consumed material on Earth after water.
The team from the University of Colorado Boulder believe their work paves the way for future building structures that could “heal their own cracks, suck up dangerous toxins from the air or even glow on command”.
Tiny hybrid robots made using stem cells from frog embryos could one day be used to swim around human bodies to specific areas requiring medicine, or to gather microplastic in the oceans. “These are novel living machines,” said Joshua Bongard, a computer scientist and robotics expert at the University of Vermont, who co-developed the millimetre-wide bots, known as xenobots.
“They’re neither a traditional robot nor a known species of animal. It’s a new class of artefact: a living, programmable organism.”
Tactile virtual reality
Researchers from Northwestern University have developed a prototype device which aims to put touch within VR’s reach, using a flexible material fitted with tiny vibrating components that can be attached to skin. The system, known as epidermal VR, could be useful in other cases as well, from a child touching a display relaying the gesture to a family member located elsewhere, to helping people with amputations renew their sense of touch.
In gaming, it could alert players when a strike occurs on the corresponding body part of the game character. The team’s design features 32 vibrating actuators on a thin 15cm by 15cm silicone polymer which sticks on to the skin without tape or straps and is free of large batteries and wires.
It uses near-field communication (NFC) technology – which is used in many smartphones for mobile payment today – to transfer the data. “The result is a thin, lightweight system that can be worn and used without constraint indefinitely,” says Professor John A Rogers, who worked on the project.
Scientists hope that the technology could eventually find its way into clothing, allowing people with prosthetics to wear VR shirts that communicate touch through their fingertips.
Internet for everyone
We can’t seem to live without the internet (how else would you read sciencefocus.com?), but still only around half the world’s population is connected. There are many reasons for this, including economic and social reasons, but for some the internet just isn’t accessible because they have no connection.
Google is slowly trying to solve the problem using helium balloons to beam the internet to inaccessible areas, while Facebook has abandoned plans to do the same using drones, which means companies like Hiber are stealing a march. They have taken a different approach by launching their own network of shoebox-sized microsatellites into low Earth orbit, which wake up a modem plugged into your computer or device when it flies over and delivers your data.
Their satellites orbit the Earth 16 times a day and are already being used by organisations like The British Antarctic Survey to provide internet access to very extreme of our planet.
Heart monitoring T-shirt
Wearable sports bands that measure your heart rate are nothing new, but as numerous studies have shown, the accuracy can vary wildly (especially if you rely on them to count calories). In general, that’s fine if you just want an idea of how hard you’re working out, but for professionals, accuracy is everything.
Using a single lead ECG printed into the fabric, this new t-shirt from smart materials company KYMIRA will accurately measure heart beats and upload them to the cloud via Bluetooth. Once there, algorithms process the data to accurately detect irregular heartbeats such as arrhythmia heart beats, which could prove life saving.
And it’s not just athletes who could benefit. “The possibilities this product offers both sportspeople and the general public is astonishing,” says Tim Brownstone, CEO and founder of KYMIRA. “We envisage developing this product to be used for clinical applications to allow those who may already suffer with heart conditions enough warning of a heart attack.”
London’s coffee industry creates over 200,000 tonnes of waste every year, so what do we do with it? Entrepreneur Arthur Kay’s big idea is to use his company, bio-bean, to turn 85 per cent of coffee waste into biofuels for heating buildings and powering transport. Already the world’s largest recycler of coffee waste, the company collects coffee grounds from large chains and restaurants as well as smaller coffee shops, and transports them to its processing plant in Cambridgeshire.
There, the grounds are dried and processed before being used to create products such as pellets or logs for biofuel, bio plastics or flavourings.
Drown forest fires in sound
Forest fires could one day be dealt with by drones that would direct loud noises at the trees below. Since sound is made up of pressure waves, it can be used to disrupt the air surrounding a fire, essentially cutting off the supply of oxygen to the fuel. At the right frequency, the fire simply dies out, as researchers at George Mason University in Virginia recently demonstrated with their sonic extinguisher. Apparently, bass frequencies work best.
The AI scientist
Cut off a flatworm’s head, and it’ll grow a new one. Cut it in half, and you’ll have two new worms. Fire some radiation at it, and it’ll repair itself. Scientists have wanted to work out the mechanisms involved for some time, but the secret has eluded them. Enter an AI coded at Tufts University, Massachusetts. By analysing and simulating countless scenarios, the computer was able to solve the mystery of the flatworm’s regeneration in just 42 hours. In the end it produced a comprehensive model of how the flatworm’s genes allow it to regenerate.
Although humans still need to feed the AI with information, the machine in this experiment was able to create a new, abstract theory independently – a huge step towards the development of a conscious computer, and potentially a landmark step in the way we carry out research.
Car batteries that charge in 10 minutes
Fast-charging of electric vehicles is seen as key to their take-up, so motorists can stop at a service station and fully charge their car in the time it takes to get a coffee and use the toilet – taking no longer than a conventional break.
But rapid charging of lithium-ion batteries can degrade the batteries, researchers at Penn State University in the US say. This is because the flow of lithium particles known as ions from one electrode to another to charge the unit and hold the energy ready for use does not happen smoothly with rapid charging at lower temperatures.
However, they have now found that if the batteries could heat to 60°C for just 10 minutes and then rapidly cool again to ambient temperatures, lithium spikes would not form and heat damage would be avoided.
The battery design they have come up with is self-heating, using a thin nickel foil which creates an electrical circuit that heats in less than 30 seconds to warm the inside of the battery. The rapid cooling that would be needed after the battery is charged would be done using the cooling system designed into the car.
Their study, published in the journal Joule, showed they could fully charge an electrical vehicle in 10 minutes.
We’ve almost got used to the idea of driverless cars before we’ve even seen one on the roads. The truth is, you might well see a lot more driverless trucks – after all, logistics make the world go round. They’ll be cheaper to run than regular rigs, driving more smoothly and so using less fuel. Computers never get tired or need comfort breaks, so they’ll run longer routes. And they could drive in convoys, nose-to-tail, to minimise wind resistance.
Companies like Mercedes and Peloton are already exploring these possibilities, and if the promised gains materialise, freight companies could upgrade entire fleets overnight. On the downside, it could put drivers instantly out of work, and even staff at the truck stops set up to service them, but many companies have said the trucks will still need a human passenger to ensure their cargo is safe.
Artificial neurons on silicon chips
Scientists have found a way to attach artificial neurons onto silicon chips, mimicking the neurons in our nervous system and copying their electrical properties. “Until now neurons have been like black boxes, but we have managed to open the black box and peer inside,” said Professor Alain Nogaret, from the University of Bath, who led the project.
“Our work is paradigm-changing because it provides a robust method to reproduce the electrical properties of real neurons in minute detail. “But it’s wider than that, because our neurons only need 140 nanowatts of power. That’s a billionth the power requirement of a microprocessor, which other attempts to make synthetic neurons have used.
Researchers hope their work could be used in medical implants to treat conditions such as heart failure and Alzheimer’s as it requires so little power.
The UN predicts there will be two billion more people in the world by 2050, creating a demand for 70 per cent more food. By that time, 80 per cent of us will be living in cities, and most food we eat in urban areas is brought in. So farms moored on the sea or inland lakes close to cities would certainly reduce food miles.
But how would they work? A design by architect Javier Ponce of Forward Thinking Architecture shows a 24m-tall, three-tiered structure with solar panels on top to provide energy. The middle tier grows a variety of veg over an area of 51,000m2, using not soil but nutrients in liquid. These nutrients and plant matter would drop into the bottom layer to feed fish, which are farmed in an enclosed space.
A single Smart Floating Farm measuring 350 x 200m would produce an estimated 8.1 tonnes of vegetables and 1.7 tonnes of fish a year. The units are designed to bolt together, which is handy since we’ll need a lot of them: Dubai, for instance, imports 11,000 tonnes of fruit and veg every day.
Russian scientist Sergey Zimov hopes to recreate a 12,000-year-old environment in a wildlife park for herbivores like wild horse and bison, with extinct megafauna like mammoths replaced by modern hybrids. Zimov will study the impact of the animals on environment and climate.
There are two things the majority of people in the Western world own: a refrigerator and a mobile phone. And aerogels could revolutionise the manufacture of both. An aerogel is a material that’s full of tiny holes. Made by extracting all the liquid from a gel, it can be up to 95 per cent pores. Those pores are so small – between 20 and 50 nanometres – that gas molecules can’t squeeze through them. As a result, aerogels can’t transport heat, making for a material with incredible insulating properties.
The unusual electrical properties of aerogels also make them suitable as lightweight antennae for mobile phones, satellites and aircraft.