I know that the World Economic Forum (the ‘WEF’) gets a bit of a bad name for hosting top-0.01-percenter conferences like Davos – but whatever their politics, those kids release some pretty cool research. As they should: I mean, they’re backed by the world’s largest companies.
About a month ago, they released their “Top 10 Emerging Technologies list” for 2016, which is basically a list of real-life things that were once Arthur C. Clarke fantasy. Since I read the document two weeks’ ago, I’ve been trying to condense it into something readable. Some obstacles:
- I don’t really know what I’m talking about;
- The document was already a condensed version of thousands of academic papers;
- Who has the time?
Then, happily (!!), last week, the people at futurism.com did it for me:
I already know about (and/or have written about) some of the tech (blockchain, next generation batteries, open AI, self-driving cars), but the rest of it was a bit revelatory.
On Nanosensors and the Internet of Nanothings
Scientists have started shrinking sensors from millimeters or microns in size to the nanometer scale, small enough to circulate within living bodies and to mix directly into construction materials. This is a crucial first step toward an Internet of Nano Things (IoNT) that could take medicine, energy efficiency, and many other sectors to a whole new dimension.
Some of the most advanced nanosensors to date have been crafted by using the tools of synthetic biology to modify single-celled organisms, such as bacteria. The goal here is to fashion simple biocomputers that use DNA and proteins to recognize specific chemical targets, store a few bits of information, and then report their status by changing color or emitting some other easily detectable signal. Synlogic, a start-up in Cambridge, Mass., is working to commercialize computationally-enabled strains of probiotic bacteria to treat rare metabolic disorders. Beyond medicine, such cellular nanosensors could find many uses in agriculture and drug manufacturing.
On The Risks of Nanothings
The transition from smart nanosensors to the IoNT seems inevitable, but big challenges will have to be met. One technical hurdle is to integrate all the components needed for a self-powered nanodevice to detect a change and transmit a signal to the web. Other obstacles include thorny issues of privacy and safety. Any nanodevices introduced into the body, deliberately or inadvertently, could be toxic or provoke immune reactions. The technology could also enable unwelcome surveillance.
On 2D Materials
New materials can change the world. There is a reason we talk about the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Concrete, stainless steel, and silicon made the modern era possible. Now a new class of materials, each consisting of a single layer of atoms, are emerging, with far-reaching potential. Known as two-dimensional materials, this class has grown within the past few years to include lattice-like layers of carbon (graphene), boron (borophene) and hexagonal boron nitride (aka white graphene), germanium (germanene), silicon (silicene), phosphorous (phosphorene) and tin (stanene). More 2-D materials have been shown theoretically possible but not yet synthesized, such as graphyne from carbon. Each has exciting properties, and the various 2-D substances can be combined like Lego bricks to build still more new materials.
This revolution in monolayers started in 2004 when two scientists famously created 2-D graphene using Scotch tape—probably the first time that Nobel-prize-winning science has been done using a tool found in kindergarten classrooms. Graphene is stronger than steel, harder than diamond, lighter than almost anything, transparent, flexible, and an ultrafast electrical conductor. It is also impervious to most substances except water vapor, which flows freely through its molecular mesh.
On Graphene, specifically
Graphene could be added to road paving mixtures or concrete to clean up urban air — on top of its other strengths, the stuff absorbs carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides from the atmosphere.
If you’re interested, you should definitely have a read of the original report from the WEF. It makes me feel like we’re living in a dystopian world of science fiction.
Rolling Alpha posts about finance, economics, and sometimes stuff that is only quite loosely related. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, or like my page on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rollingalpha. Or both.