Thursday, November 22, 2007

Top 12 Areas for Technology Innovation through 2025


What will likely be the most important scientific and technological breakthroughs with significant commercial value and impacts on the lives of consumers out to 2025?

To begin to answer that question, S)T's Technology Foresight program conducted a virtual, global focus group of experts in technology, innovation, and business strategy. The group included experts from the Association of Professional Futurists, Tekes, Duke University, Hasbro, Worldwatch, General Motors, Shell, Johnson Controls, and Oxford University, among others.

After consolidating input from the expert panel and analysis by Social Technologies' futurists, what emerged was our list of top 12 areas for tech innovation through 2025:


  • Personalized medicine—With the initial mapping of the human genome, scientists are moving rapidly toward the following likely breakthroughs for gene-based products and services:
    • creation of an individual’s genome map for a retail price of less than $1,000
    • correlation of specific genes and proteins with specific conditions, such as cancers, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and diabetes, which will allow both physicians and patients to anticipate, plan for, and mitigate, if not cure, DNA-based health challenges
    • development of pharmaceuticals that treat gene-based diseases, replacing surgeries and chemotherapy
  • Distributed energy—The evolution of distributed energy will reflect that of computing: just as computing has migrated from the 20th century’s centralized model (powerful mainframes delivering applications to remote workstations) to today’s decentralized model (PCs and networks), so energy generation and delivery will move from central to distributed sources, increasingly featuring local generators that can be linked when needed for greater output. Specific innovations will include:
    • advanced electric storage devices and batteries at all scales
    • new power systems with source-switching flexibility
    • new energy management systems
  • Pervasive computing—Almost every device or object in consumers’ lives will be both smart and networked, giving rise to an “Internet of things.” Pervasive computing will drive the convergence of computing, the Internet, voice communications, and television—ultimately blurring categories of infotech products and services. Specific breakthroughs will include:
    • very simple and inexpensive computing devices with integrated wireless telephone and Internet capabilities (the $100 computer)
    • the “semantic Web,” enabled by Web data that automatically self-organizes based on its content, allowing search tools or software agents to better identify relevant Web pages—not just find keywords on them
    • intelligent interfaces, in some cases enabled by virtual reality
  • Nanomaterials—Although nanotechnologies have received much attention, the R&D is progressing very slowly. But the experts expect major breakthroughs within the next two decades, including inexpensive ways to produce mass quantities of nanomaterials. In addition, the function of nanomaterials will move from “passive” to “active” with the integration of nanoscale valves, switches, pumps, motors, and other components.
  • Biomarkers for health—While DNA-based diagnoses and cures have long been under the spotlight, this category of breakthroughs stresses prevention. Consumers today believe their lifestyle choices have long-term consequences for health, and at the same time they are becoming more knowledgeable about the life sciences. They want to be able to monitor their vital signs, broadly defined, in ways that are as affordable, easy to use, and private, as home scales are for monitoring weight. Potential breakthroughs here include:
    • individualized, private, and self-administered diagnostics for multiple physical parameters such as blood sugar, urine, C-reactive proteins, HDL, and LDL, as well as home diagnostic kits that detect early signs of diabetes, heart disease, and types of cancers
    • personalized exercise equipment and regimens that deliver customized benefits (for weight control, blood pressure, blood sugar, etc.)
    • advanced CAT scans, MRIs, and brain scans to identify disorders earlier and more accurately at less cost
  • Biofuels—The expert panel felt strongly that significant further advances will be made in renewable biomass fuels, allowing them to supplement and eventually replace gasoline and diesel. Genetically modified organisms may be key to the development of biofuels.Anticipated breakthroughs include:
    • high-energy blends of gasoline and diesel with biofuels (beyond the ethanol blends known today)
    • biomass production of a methanol that can be used as a fuel for fuel cells
    • new discoveries in plant genetics and biotechnologies specifically for energy content
  • Advanced manufacturing—The long-term trend continues to favor “mass customization,” or the ability to produce low quantities of specific products in a profitable way. Such processes may apply not just to factory manufacturing, but to many applications—potentially ranging from desktop publishing to specialty foods production. The experts anticipated the following breakthroughs by 2025:
    • advanced computer-aided design and control
    • multiple variable and inexpensive sensors linked with computers
    • expert systems and advanced pattern-recognition software for very tight quality control
  • Universal water—Water supplies are increasingly strained. Less than 2% of the planet’s store of water is fresh, and most of that is trapped in polar icecaps, while much of the water available for human use is threatened by pollution. The future of water is simple: use less; keep the available fresh water clean; and make more fresh water from salt water to offset critical shortfalls. Enabling technologies will include:
    • ultra-fine filters (probably from nanotechnology)
    • new energy sources for desalination and purification, including hybrid systems that combine conventional and alternative power—especially solar power
    • smart water-use technologies for agriculture and industry
  • Carbon management—Discussions about mitigating climate change have focused on controlling greenhouse gases, yet methane and carbon dioxide, to name two principal greenhouse gases, are more difficult to measure and control than previous air pollutants. The expert panel, however, anticipates that technologies currently in R&D will prove to be effective for these gases—and that this area of work will be extremely important. Innovations will include:
    • effective “measure, monitor, and verify” systems
    • affordable and effective carbon capture and storage technologies and systems for coal-burning power plants
    • low to zero emission controls for transportation
  • Engineered agriculture—This area of genetics-based R&D is closely related to innovations in personalized medicine and biofuels, but with applications in agriculture and nutrition. Potential breakthroughs include:
    • identification of specific genomes for desired growing and use qualities
    • crop-produced pharmaceuticals and chemical feedstocks
    • crops designed specifically for energy content and conversion
  • Security and tracking—Although the experts gave less weight to breakthroughs for national security and counterterrorism than to those for consumer products and services (probably a result of how the topic question was framed), they envisioned a continued need for personal safety and security systems. Examples of potential breakthroughs in the personal-security realm include:
    • completely autonomous security-camera systems with algorithms able to correctly interpret and identify all manner of human behavior
    • multiple integrated sensors (including remote sensing)
    • radio frequency tags for people and valuables
  • Advanced transportation—In addition to the consideration of energy sources for transportation, the experts identified potentially significant breakthroughs in the management of private mobility, as well as advances in public transport. These include:
    • personal transportation coordinated through wireless computer networks, information systems, and the Internet
    • onboard sensors and computers for smart vehicles
    • advanced high-speed rail

Over the next few weeks and months we will update ChangeWaves with more information about each of these top 12 areas for innovation.

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