15 min. read

September 13, 2021

future

Top 10 Future Technologies You’ve Definitely Never Heard Of

and how they will change the world...

1 adrien book

Adrien Book

CRISPR, Quantum, Graphene, Smart Dust, Digital Twins, the Metaverse… You’ve heard about it all. Seen it all. Read it all. These technologies no longer hold any secrets for you. Hell, you've probably mentioned them over dinner or at work and have become the go-to person for questions about future innovations.

Yet, technology is ever-changing, and this precious knowledge must be both managed and updated regularly. With this in mind, I’ve put together a list of 10 future technologies that are not on the public’s radar as of today but are likely to make big waves in the future. 

1. Femtosecond Projection Two-Photon Lithography

What is it?

3D printing is a solution looking for a problem, and over the past decade, the technology has failed to find a target audience. On the one hand, 3D printers are still too expensive for the average Joe; on the other, they are not sophisticated and fast enough for large-scale manufacturing companies.

This may change over the next few years: researchers have developed a method that uses lasers to project millions of points simultaneously onto 3D-printing material, instead of using one point at a time. And because they’re bad at branding, they called it Femtosecond projection TPL. To easily understand FP-TPL, simply imagine using a million heated needles to strategically melt a block of wax versus using a single needle. This means that incredibly tiny structures can be 3D-printed much, much faster (a thousand times faster, give or take), while still ensuring a good quality of the build. 

How will it change the world?

So far, teams working on the innovation seem focused on flexible electronics and micro-optics. However, quick discoveries around materials (both liquid and solid) have led researchers to think that they will be able to build small but imagination-baffling structures in the near future. Once the quality can be controlled over large scales, one could easily imagine this technology being used for the creation of healthcare-related nanorobots, allowing for the treatment of a multitude of diseases on the molecular level.

Read more on Femtosecond Projection Two-Photon Lithography here.

2. LiFi

What is it?

Lifi
LiFi technology uses light sources instead of microwaves to transmit data.

The name says it all: LiFi aims to use light to transmit information from point A to point B. The technology works by encoding digital data and turning LED bulbs on and off faster than humans can notice to transfer it. The light then travels to a photoreceptor, which can decode and translate the data to a more classic radio frequency (WiFi, 4G, 5G…). 

There are a lot of advantages to doing things this way. What with light being used, the speed at which the information is transmitted is very, very high — up to 100 Gbit/s, in theory; 5 times faster than 5G. Furthermore, the sheer number of LED bulbs already around us hints at a potential future wherein (cheap) access points to receive data are everywhere. Finally, the light waves used as the basis for LiFi do not pass through walls (but can however be reflected off of them). The risk of hacking is therefore much lower than with WiFi, though this seriously limits indoor use cases.

On the other hand, the use of LiFi requires one to be near an operating light source. Its range is thus very limited, and interference is possible with other light sources such as natural sunlight.

How will it change the world?

As of today, the technology is very much of a niche, despite having been hyped in some circles for half a decade now. One obstacle to popular adoption is the size and price of photoreceptors. As such, key use cases are within areas that are particularly sensitive to hacking and/or electromagnetic interference, such as hospitals, aircraft, military operations… 

There are also talks of using it for unmanned underwater vehicles, as well as for street lights, to communicate with smart vehicles, or about municipal services to citizens should the technology become more democratised.

Read more on LiFi here.

3. Energy-storing Bricks

What is it?

Researchers have managed to store energy in the cheap red bricks we’ve been using for construction throughout the world for centuries. This process works for two reasons: bricks are porous and contain something called hematite (which gives it its colour). For these bricks to store and then release energy, researchers heat them to 160 degrees and vaporize their surface with hydrochloric acid mixed with an organic compound called EDOT. When in contact with hematite, this mix causes a chemical reaction, creating a new plastic nanofiber coating called PEDOT. This polymer is trapped in the porous surface of the brick, forming a continuous and electrically conductive layer on each of its faces. The humble building block can then act as an ion sponge to store and conduct electricity.

For now, the amount of energy these bricks can store is still low, but the proof of concept is a staggering success. It’s possible to power a small lamp for 50 minutes with 60 bricks, which doesn’t sound like much until you realise it only takes 13 minutes for these bricks to recharge. This technology also has a long lifespan, since even after 10,000 storage and retrieval cycles, the bricks still retain 90% of their original capacity, without altering the rate of charge and discharge. 

How will it change the world?

The main benefit of this technology would come about when used at a house equipped with solar panels. The bricks could then store unused electricity and thus compensate for the intermittence of this renewable energy. This would make our homes more self-sufficient in energy and less dependent on electric cables and/or the likes of lithium batteries. Discussions are currently underway with several companies in Europe and the United States to consider its commercialisation and know that the next generation of bricks will be able to increase its energy capacity by 50%. Enough to charge a laptop? Only time will tell.

Read more on Energy-Storing Bricks here.

4. Robotic bees

What is it?

robotic bees
Photo by Aljaž Kavčič on Unsplash

Let’s bee honest, it’s not great out there, climate-wise. And that’s killing bees, which we need to pollinate 35% of our crops, which we need for food, which we need for not being dead. Are we going to stop climate change to save the bees? Of course not, that’s not how we roll. Instead, we’re going to create robotic bees to pollinate plants just as the real things do. And by “we”, I mean Walmart.

Details are scarce, but most researchers estimate that the bees would work by attaching horse hair coated with ionic liquid gel to a tiny drone. The hair picks up pollen from one flower, and moves it to the next. Researchers at Harvard have long been working on “RoboBees” using such techniques. What Walmart offers on top is a wide array of sensors, cameras, artificial intelligence… to locate the relevant crops and pollinate them as needed.

Source: Google Patents

If that feels like the premise of a Black Mirror episode, you’d be right

How will it change the world?

If the costs of operating such technology continues to decrease, we could see autonomous insect pollinate large fields in the coming years, which could save thousands of farmers from ruin, and ensure we can still have almond milk on the superstores’ shelves.

I however have a few gripes with it. Firstly, small farmers might never be able to afford robotic bees, and we would once again be empowering the big guy against the little guy. We also don’t know how these “bees” would impact the fauna overall, both on and off the fields. How about we try to save the real bees, instead

Read more on Robotic bees here.

5. Unnamed Dynamic Neural Networks Technology

What is it?

Neural network uses hidden layers to break down information (the input-images, audio, videos, handwritten text…) into tiny pieces of easily understandable components, allowing a computer to inform a prediction about the nature of said input. It does this thanks to a wide array of training data and mathematical models. In doing so, it works “similarly” to our brain, hence the technology’s name. This is far from new, but the world of data science has been on the lookout for faster and more efficient ways of using neural networks to serve the upcoming IoT revolution.

Patent 10410117 proposes a way to do just that by storing the training data and mathematical models within the “hidden layers” (nodes) of the network itself, creating a sort of library that can be used to train another device. If you managed to get through this sentence, you understand that it gets us a whole lot closer to how a brain actually works. Note that the marketers haven’t gotten to this one yet, hence the name.

How will it change the world?

First and foremost, the technology reduces computing resources required of the host CPU and cuts back on costs of running data centres, something which seems benign compared to all the issues discussed in this article, but is nevertheless incredibly important at scale. It also reduces the environmental costs of these centres, which is always a plus.

By optimising neural networks for speed, accuracy and power consumption, the technology will lead to improvements in the realm of surveillance, advanced driver assistance systems, autonomous vehicles, vision-guided robotics, drones, augmented and virtual reality, acoustic analysis, and Industrial Internet-of-Things. All worthy endeavours, if you’re into that type of thing.

Read more on Patent 10410117 here.

6. Seawater fuel

What is it?

When it comes to energy, the sea remains a massive untapped resource; it’s not like we’re going to run out of it anytime soon, what with the North Pole melting. And according to researchers, it could soon be put to good use as fuel for ships.

Bear with me: the process uses a potassium-promoted molybdenum carbide catalyst (bless you) to extract carbon dioxide from seawater, turning it into carbon monoxide via the reverse water-gas shift (RWGS) reaction. The carbon monoxide can in turn be converted into a hydrocarbon via the Fischer-Tropsch synthesis. Ships can then use this hydrocarbon instead of pre-onboarded fuel which, as we know, carries many risks.

How will it change the world?

The fuel currently used to power the thousands of ships that cross the seas and oceans daily is very polluting. The conversion of CO2 into chemicals and value-added fuels could significantly reduce the greenhouse gases they emit over the long term.

There are however a handful of issues that need fixing before we get to greener maritime routes. Firstly, carbon dioxide concentration in seawater is about 100 milligrams per litre. That’s not much. To put it into perspective, you’d need to process close to 45 million cubic meters of water to power a cruise ship for about a week. And the more water you process, the more sea life you remove from the food chain, with potentially catastrophic long-term results. Secondly, you’re still releasing carbon into the air at the end of the day, even if it’s water-based carbon. You could argue that it’s a net neutral as it will get back to the sea eventually, but if you’re at all ecologically conscious, you know this is a slippery slope.

Read more on Seawater Fuel here.

7. 20-minute Water

What is it?

How will it change the world?

The recipe was concocted especially for developing countries — remote areas where people don’t have access to chemical treatments such as chlorine. It could save some of the 300,000 children under 5 who die worldwide every year of waterborne diseases such as the cholera, typhoid and hepatitis. It could also help some of the 2.2 billion people who don’t have a wastewater treatment system.

Unlike other innovations in this article, this one hardly has any downsides. It’s very cheap: the amount of silver used for the nanowires is so small the cost is negligible, and the electricity needed can be easily supplied by a small solar panel or a couple of 12-volt car batteries. Since the filter doesn’t trap bacteria (killing them instead), it can have much larger pores, allowing water to speed through at a more rapid rate. More than 80,000 times faster than existing filters, to be exact. And it does so without clogging, an issue that plagues existing solutions.

Read more on 20-minute Water here.

8. Zero-knowledge proof

What is it?

Privacy: ever heard of it? Computer scientists are perfecting a cryptographic tool we could use to prove something without revealing the information underlying the proof. It sounds incredible but not impossible once you wrap your head around the concept and the fact that it’s a bit more complex than saying “c’mon bro, you know I’m good for it”.

Allow me to simplify through an example. Imagine, if you will, that a man named John has a blind friend named Jane. He also has in his possession two marbles of different colours, though they are identical in shape and size. Jane puts them behind her back and shows one to John. She then does it again, either changing the marble or showing the same one again, asking if this is the same as the marble previously shown. If John were guessing whether it was the same or not, he would have a 50/50 chance of getting it right, so she does it again. And again. And because John sees the marbles’ colours, he gets it right each time, and the chance that he guessed lucky diminishes. Jane thus knows that John knows which marble is the original shown (and its colour), without her ever knowing the colour of any of the marbles. Boom, zero-knowledge proof. Or zero-knowledge succinct non-interactive argument of knowledge if you’re family. Obviously, it all gets mathematical and cryptographic from here, but you get the gist.

How will it change the world?

It’s easy to come up with VERY cool use cases. For example, if an app needs to know that you have enough money to put a transaction through your bank could communicate that yes, that is the case, without giving an amount. It could also help identify a person without a birth certificate, allow someone to enter a restricted website without needing to display their date of birth... or help with nuclear disarmament. additionally, it could provide proof of a crypto-currency transaction without revealing its amount (BitCoin is, and always will be, too public for me —Go Zcash!). Yay for privacy, and here’s to a hopefully dying targeted advertising industry.

Read more on Zero-Knowledge Proof here.

9. YOLOv5

What is it?

Real-time object detection is a technique used to detect objects from video. It’s the underlying technology behind… well, most things we want to use in the future, from Tesla’s self-driving cars to Amazon’s cashier-less stores. The YOLO (“You Only Look Once”) models refer to some of the most versatile and famous real-time object detection and labelling models.

The latest iteration (V5) of the model is worthy of this list for a couple of reasons. It’s written in PyTorch, which will make its deployment to mobile a lot easier. It’s also quick. Very quick. 140 frames per second quick, while also preserving accuracy. Finally, YOLOv5 is nearly 90 percent smaller than YOLOv4. This means it will be deployed to embedded devices much more easily.

How will it change the world?

This innovation is important because it means we will soon be able to do real real-time analysis — detecting and labelling videos 140 times per second. For context, previous models struggled to get to 10 frames per second. At this speed, you can use AI on videos of fields as varied as the world of medicine or that of sport. It can also improve things like detecting obstacles in autonomous cars earlier to avoid even more collisions. It’s a really big deal, but one you surely won’t hear about in the newspapers.

Read more on YOLOv5 here.

10. 4D-printing

What is it?

4d printing 4-D print

The name 4D printing can lead to confusion: I am not implying that humanity will be able to create and access another dimension (Only Rubik can do that). Put simply, a 4D-printed product is a 3D-printed object which can change properties when a specific stimulus is applied (submerged underwater, heated, shaken, not stirred…). The 4th D is therefore Time; time needed for the stimulus to be relevant.

The key challenge of this technology is obviously finding the relevant “smart material” for all types of uses (namely a hydrogel or a shape memory polymer for the time being). Some work is being done in this space, but we’re not even close to being customer-ready, having yet to master reversible changes of certain materials.

How will it change the world?

The applications are still being discussed, but some very promising industries include healthcare (pills that activate only if the body reaches a certain temperature), fashion (clothes that become tighter in cold temperature), and home-making (furniture that becomes rigid under a certain stimulus).

Another really cool use case is computational folding, wherein objects larger than printers can be printed as only one part.

Read more on 4D-Printing here.

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Obviously, it’s always possible that some of these innovations will never become popularised. This should however not stop us from aiming to better understand them: the knowledge gained through planning is crucial to the selection of appropriate actions as future events unfold. A basic understanding of new technologies can also help us steer clear of potentially destructive ones.

Good luck out there 🙏