How is the technological frontier shaping up for the next five years? Prognosticating progress is a popular pastime among high-tech types: Back in December, IBM issued its predictions for the top five technologies leading up to 2012 – and last week, I took my turn at the Technology Association of Iowa's annual awards banquet. Who'll come closer to the mark? Read on, lay your bets, and list your own predictions for our high-tech future.
1. Energy independence … with ethanol? Biofuels are becoming the hottest trend in energy technology, and lots of venture capitalists are placing big bets – as illustrated by this "Dateline NBC" report from last year on ethanol investor Vinod Khosla. The highlight of the story is Khosla's trip to see Brazil's ethanol boom in action – a trip similar to the one President Bush took last week.
Brazil's boom is fueled by the sugar in sugar cane, just as America's current fling with ethanol is powered by the starch in corn. But what we're heading toward in the next five years is an ethanol economy that draws upon cheaper raw materials, ranging from plain old cornstalks to prairie grasses, paper-mill waste and even the peelings left behind by orange juice producers. That's what could drive down the price of ethanol fuel below the dollar-per-gallon mark … at least in Khosla's vision for the next five years.
The challenge facing researchers is to come up with ways to break down cellulose more efficiently. Scientists are doing just that – by analyzing how termites break down cellulose in their guts, for example. A couple of weeks ago, genetic researchers reported that they've found hundreds of new enzymes that could make it easier to turn cellulose into green ethanol. And just last week, researchers announced that they've sequenced the genome of a yeast species that could turn cellulose into ethanol.
There's one more requirement for the biofuel revolution that Khosla anticipates, and that's making our fuel infrastructure more ethanol-friendly. In Brazil, 80 percent of all motor vehicles are capable of using fuel blends ranging from straight gasoline to E85. In comparison, less than 3 percent of America's motor vehicles are built for FlexFuel. So if the trends continue to head in the direction they're going, you can expect FlexFuel to join cellulose, genomics and enzymes as buzzwords for the next five years in energy technology.
Every time I write about ethanol, it sparks a debate over whether other energy technologies - such as ultra-efficient batteries, or solar, or wind, or kinder, gentler nuclear power - are more likely to win out. Maybe it won't be ethanol. But I have a feeling that the push toward less dependence on foreign fossil fuel is for real this time.
2. Sociable robots: Utilitarian robots are already taking on tasks ranging from building cars and cleaning floors to detecting bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. The next big trend in robotics is to make the machines more sociable, and therefore more human. As you can see in this video clip from NBC's TODAY show, Japan is setting the pace for sociable robots – partly because the aging of Japan's population has created a need for robotic nurses and companions. These companion robots could well help aging boomers do the cooking, cleaning and even gardening, according to Cynthia Breazeal, a robotics whiz at MIT.
There's yet another possible course for robots: In addition to becoming more visible, robots may become more in-visible. Some cars are already being equipped with enough smarts to back themselves into a parking place – and this fall, robotic vehicles are due to drive themselves through city traffic as part of DARPA's Urban Challenge. Within the next five or 10 years, there may be a four-wheeled robot driving in the lane beside you. Meanwhile, at MIT, Cynthia Breazeal is talking about creating a wearable suit fitted with sensors that could coach you through a golf swing or a tennis swing.
3. Cyborgs and cyberhumans: Even today, there are plenty of people who are part machine – and that trend is likely to accelerate in the next five years.
There was only one "Six Million Dollar Man" when that TV show first came out – but now there are millions of men and women who have high-tech prosthetics. Neuroscience is showing us how to build artificial arms and legs that really do respond to the mere thought of movement. Cochlear implants are bringing hearing to the deaf – and just in the last month, the FDA gave its go-ahead for a new generation of artificial retinas that are wired directly to the brain.
Brown University's John Donoghue – who has been involved in experiments that wired up monkeys to move robotic arms with their thoughts – said the next step is to create a fiber-optic nervous system that can be implanted within your very muscles, to create what he calls an "Internet of the body."
The Internet has become so much a part of our lives that it could hardly be called a frontier technology. But we may be approaching a frontier in which the collective knowledge of the World Wide Web becomes integrated with our own knowledge, creating what you could call a personal "Innernet."
Imagine having a search-and-retrieve function hooked up to your own brain that guides you to online databases just by thinking about a particular search term – sort of like a Google inside your head. Back in 1984, science-fiction writer William Gibson referred to such devices as "microsofts" – and two decades ago, that seemed like nothing more than cyberpunk sci-fi. But today, I can't help but think that the next five years will bring us closer to an Innernet revolution.
4. Personalized medicine: Genetic profiling is already being used to fine-tune treatment for blood clots in patients who are at risk of developing a potentially life-threatening condition – people like Vice President Dick Cheney, for example. When it comes to blood clotting, different people have different tendencies – and if you give too much of an anti-clotting agent like Warfarin to the wrong people, you run the risk of causing excessive bleeding and leakage. Genetic profiles can tell you how much of a given medication you should be getting.
In the next five years, we'll be seeing more examples where genetic profiles guide traditional drug therapy. Certain drugs, for example, don't do much for people who have a typical European genetic profile, but they can have a therapeutic effect on people of African descent. This may sound a little like racial profiling, but it really has nothing to do with the color of your skin. Rather, personalization will match your medicine to your genes – to maximize the therapeutic benefit and minimize the unwanted side effects.
The steps beyond that will be more controversial: If you're suffering from a genetic disease, it's theoretically possible to deliver therapeutic genes to your cells, wrapped up in a specially constructed virus. There have been some successes in the field of gene therapy, but also some high-profile failures that have made researchers think twice about how it should be applied.
Stem cell research is fraught with even more political debate. We've all heard about the South Korean stem cell scandal, the controversy over human embryonic stem cells vs. adult stem cells, therapeutic cloning vs. reproductive cloning, and so on. Over the next five years, stem cells are more likely to serve as microscopic laboratories in animal studies as well as human studies, to help us unravel the causes of disease – and eventually, guide us to new therapies as well. The hype over cloning may well fade away, as people come to realize that the real aim of stem cell research is to figure out how to use the healing powers of our own cells.
5. Commercial spaceflight: I've been covering this field for about 10 years, and one of the high points came in 2004, when a privately developed rocket plane called SpaceShipOne made not just one, but three flights to the edge of outer space. I talked about the impact of those flights on the field of space tourism in a video clip from October 4, 2004, the date of SpaceShipOne's final flight to the final frontier.
The successor to SpaceShipOne is expected to roll out for testing later this year, leading up to the start of commercial service two years from now. And SpaceShipTwo probably won't be the only suborbital spaceship out there. By 2010, there might well be two or three companies offering quick rides to outer space and back, with a price tag of $200,000 or so. And that price tag is certain to go down as the industry matures.
A Nevada company called Bigelow Aerospace has already launched one unmanned orbital spaceship called Genesis 1, and the company is planning to put up a bigger ship that could serve as an orbiting hotel or research station in the 2010 time frame.
Bigelow Aerospace is backed by a real-estate billionaire named Robert Bigelow – who has set aside half a billion dollars to get his orbital venture off the ground. Last month, Bigelow told me that in 2012 or so, he's planning to start focusing on helping NASA build its first moonbase. Bigelow is promising to make yet another big announcement next month, so you'll have to stay tuned for the next chapter.
So those are the five frontiers for the next five years, the way I see them. Feel free to add your own picks in the comments section below. Of course, the biggest frontier will most likely be No. 6 – the one I never saw coming. Check back in 2012, and I promise to focus on that one and explain why I was wrong about the other five.