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Technology: The Future Isn't What It Used to Be

Learn of 10 Major Technical Areas in Which Presently Available Technology and Tools Can Enable Future Ingenuity and Innovations

By Jim Montague

Seeing the future is easier if you take off blinders in the present. That's because many potential innovations are already possible with today's capabilities and tools.

What's needed to reveal them is awareness and the humility to give up stuck-in-a-rut thinking patterns that stifle useful questions and possibilities, and then the will to turn those desired futures into reality. This is easier said than done, but futurist Jack Uldrich gave it a shot at Emerson Global Users Exchange 2014 on Oct. 6 in Orlando, Florida.

"The futurist's job is to focus on the big picture and point out the 800-pound gorilla that others are missing because their attention is focused elsewhere," says Uldrich.

Also Read: 'Jump the Curve' to Foresee Transformative Innovations

Uldrich reports that developing this keener  awareness begins with "jumping the curve" to learn about and understand seemingly futuristic technologies that are already being applied now, but are rapidly dropping in price, so they're poised to mushroom in the mainstream. Uldrich identified 10 major technical areas in which presently available technology and tools can enable future ingenuity and innovations.

  1. Wearable devices, such as Google Glass, are being used in some remote oil and gas applications to call up mentors and videos to provide immediate technical expertise and advice.
  2. 3D printing, which is moving beyond making plastic trinkets in desktop boxes to additively manufacture metal in much larger, stronger forms.
  3. Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles, which quickly raised $1 million in Kickstarter funding, $25 million in venture capital and was recently sold to Facebook for $2 billion. Uldrich reports Tesla Motors is using the goggles to visualize and manipulate automotive designs and apply them to physical objects more easily.
  4. Nanotechnology embraces a variety of different technologies. Some highlights include Water Is Life's Drinkable Book, made with silver nanoparticles to filter contaminated water; the first superconducting, electric power transmission lines in Essen, Germany, which are reportedly five times more efficient; and graphene-enabled batteries that may allow electric vehicles to be changed far more quickly.
  5. Robotic innovations, such as Baxter's touch-sensitive arms that can work directly with humans, Amazon's proposed delivery drones and Google's self-driven car project.
  6. Sensors, microprocessors and RFID tags embedded in far more varied settings, including bridges and smart buildings.
  7. Genomics is doubling capabilities every four months, according to Uldrich, which will revolutionize the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries, but will also aid applications like genetically modified bioreactors that can work with solar power to turn CO2 into biodiesel or ethanol, and make both commercially viable.
  8. The computer revolution, in which solutions from IBM's Watson to Apple's Siri are increasing their data processing power exponentially, so they can soon supply answers to users questions before they think of them.
  9. Renewable fuel sources that Uldrich says can both assist and be enabled by the other primary innovation areas.
  10. Collaborative consumption that changes business models for goods such as automobiles, which don't need to be individually owned in urban areas, but can instead be checked out as part of subscriber-based cars-to-go programs.

"Many large industries say change can't happen fast, but North America was looking at importing natural gas just 10 years ago, and now we're going to export it thanks to new drilling and fracking technolgies," adds Uldrich. "We must have humility and keep an open mind to be aware of these opportunities. However, we're conditioned to see the world in one way, so when something really new stares us in the face, it can be hard to see. So we have to work at seeing it and gain the confidence to innovate the future we want to build."