Five Disruptive Technologies You Hardly Ever Hear About


People who think a lot about the future follow trends like anyone else. In fact, that’s their job, at least in the better sense of “follow.” But both senses are true. They tend to over-predict over-predicted outcomes like “The Metaverse” — a set of new virtual world experiences cited, curiously enough, in an older form of virtual worlds (i.e., the novel). There’s always the standing prediction of A.I. “coming soon,” to lure us with a potential liberation from the drudgery of thought. And then there are the all-too-common buzzwords floating around, like “convergence,” just begging some genius to build that one device to rule them all.

Futurists don’t generally stray to far from the beaten path. They also tend to stay away from controversial or taboo subjects, at least the professional ones do. But such averseness would hardly have foreseen the invention of indoor plumbing, for example, if we weren’t free to talk about shit.

While there are notable examples of technology as fashion, fetish, and flashy must-have style, what we see from a study of history is that most important technologies tend towards invisibility and ubiquity — that is, the underlying technology will quite literally disappear into the fabric of society, like indoor plumbing. It will become so commonplace that a future futurist would hardly think it worth noting — personal hygiene? Alas, only our historians are left to go “wow, look at that. The world used to smell like shit.”

That’s how it was with plumbing, the printing press, and the airplane, as well as telephones, and television. We hardly care about these devices, except when there are exceptions to our daily routine — where these devices might dangerously or annoying intrude on our personal pleasant bubbles of reality. In place of the disappeared “wow factor” of some cool new idea, we’re left with a cultural shift, a disruption that persists, while the technology more or less disappears.

This is all the more true for technologies that were fairly invisible to begin with. So I’m going to describe five of many hundreds of disruptive technologies that may become so ubiquitous over the next 10-15 years that we can hardly imagine a world without them, though in some cases, we might wish for it. These five may be somewhat related to technologies you’ve heard of, or even seen envisioned in books or movies. But for some reason, those futurists, with few exceptions(1), always seem to show their technology concepts standing out, being extraordinary, and not simply blending into the background.

1. Ghosting
– There’s virtual, and then there’s virtual. The ultimate in augmented reality displays are those that you never see, i.e., they project images directly into your eyes or brain. In the near term, companies like Microvision have been working on using lasers to gently (I hope) write directly on your retina, requiring no projection surface other than your eye. I got my first demo of an early prototype back in 1996. Back then, the term “ghosting” might be like burn-in you might get on your plasma TV or old CRT, except in your eye. Fortunately, it’s come a long way since, though it’s still somewhat niche.

The advantage of this approach is that computer graphics can be mixed with your natural eyesight with minimal intrusion, no screen and fewer focus issues. The downside is that there may be no way to the block natural light coming in as well, meaning the CG will appear “ghosted” or mixed with the real world. Now, combine that trick with a cell phone and dangling video camera facing you, even in a form factor as small as these earpieces we see, and you can see the concept of “ghosting in” coming into focus.

Call your mother, and you won’t just hear her voice, but you’ll see her projected in 3D in your local environment, as if she’s standing right there in front of you. As the technology progresses to direct neural stimulation or perhaps a projector embedded in contact lenses (allowing you to close your eyes and still see the CG), we may even solve the surreal “ghosting” part.

The end result is we’ll have no simple way to distinguish the real world from the virtual, except perhaps by touch (and even that is being worked on via induction in human nerves). But will the reality or virtuality of 3D objects really matter in our daily lives? Will I care if the “display” in front of me is real or virtual, as long as it does what I need? Will we care that among a gaggle of kids hanging out, only 2 of them are actually present and the rest are remote? Once the virtual invades the actual, “ghosting in” becomes just another form of practical magic for our everyday lives, except when it comes time to pack the house to move.

2. “Skin Cells, Please…” — Here’s an article about Mini-PCR, a technology that has shrunk one component of genetic testing down to a hand-held size and sped up the process too. The movie GATTACA envisioned some sort of drop off store where consumers could test compatibility or screen a potential mate for genetic diseases. With this, you can forget the store, or even those blood-drawing turnstiles.

Now, there’s a lot more to genetic analysis than just PCR. But the rest can be miniaturized as well, once there’s sufficient demand. Imagine a personal device, cheap enough for anyone in the developed world to afford, which could tell you someone’s entire genetic past and future in a matter of minutes.

The random ID-check scenario is actually more likely than the GATTACA turnstiles, because instant (or fast enough) DNA analysis is probably a longer ways off. So in the short term, assuming the US remains a nanny state or gets worse, expect to be carrying your “Secure National ID” card with a secret code derived from your unique DNA signature. Random DNA checks will then be needed to verify that your card is not a forgery. And, though I don’t relish the thought, at least we won’t have to swab or give blood at every security checkpoint. [I am, in case it’s not clear, not in favor of such authoritarian uses — but enough people seem to be that it might just happen]

3. Personal power – and I mean personal. Here’s a story about using manure to generate energy. We already know that out gut flora (bacteria mostly, some more promordial still) are responsible for helping us digest much of what we eat. Different populations of flora will produce different results, better or worse energy absorption, lactose tolerance or intolerance, weight gain or loss, and of course, IBS.

With more research and some genetic engineering, we may soon be able to convert much of our own waste into electricity. Follow that trail to its logical end, so to speak, add some miniaturization and stylish packaging and you have what I affectionately call “The Butt Plug,” a device designed to fit neatly into your colon, extracting every last bit of energy from your digestive system, with a once-a-month deposit of a solid pellet. It’s like Mr. Fusion to go.

I jokingly used this technology in a science fiction story, with the nice addition of an actual 3 prong electrical socket that protrudes from, well, you get the idea. But I think powering personal devices by EM induction would be preferable, thank you very much.

4. Solar Carbon – We’re hearing a lot about global warming and becoming more “carbon neutral.” But what they don’t tell you is that all “carbon-neutral” technologies are not equal. We could be 100% carbon neutral and still not reverse global warming. Algae might soon be engineered to pull CO2 from the air, produce oil to burn, and release that oxidized carbon back to the air a month later. Another technology might box up that carbon for 100 years or more. They may both be carbon neutral, but the latter does far more short-term good in keeping more CO2 out of the atmosphere.

More than that, we’ll need carbon-negative technologies — taking carbon out of the air — at least until we restore the natural environmental balance. One of the better ideas might be to build a device or organism that can take CO2 from the air, using sunlight and water to produce sugars or even carbon nanotubes, which we could use for building all sorts of things — no burning required. The Solar Carbon machine, then, is an organic or nanotech assembler of carbon chains using photons for energy and a still-to-be-proven chemical process. However, the end result, much like Personal Power, is a system that produces no waste and still creates what we need.

5. Utero vs. Ewe-tero and other Gestational Pandemonium – One of the most left-field technologies I’ve come across is one which injects human embryonic stem cells into a developing sheep. This results in sheep organs that are 15% human. What happens in the sheep’s brain? Do we give the sheep proportionate human rights?

In the nearer term, the purpose of these experiments is to develop organs, such as hearts and livers, that can be transplanted into humans without fear of rejection. It’s a worthwhile pursuit, if a little scary.

But what happens when we can grow a female sheep with a human-enough womb that it can sustain and gestate a fertilized human egg? Would women opt for surrogacy by sheep or other beasts of burden? Would society put up with it?

Can Pro-Life forces be placated with the idea of transplanting an unwanted pregnancy to a surrogate “mother,” human or otherwise, while protecting the original mother’s right to choose not to carry the child? Moreover, will we advance to the point where we have perfect contraception (non-abortive in all cases, and 100% covered), perhaps cures to all STDs, where the only argument left on the Right is that premarital sex is a sin? What kind of world would that be?

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(1) This is one the reasons Blade Runner is probably the best true science fiction movie of all time, and why P.K. Dick is one of the best futurists we’ve had.

  1. #1 by Frank L. Quednau on July 5, 2007 - 12:15 pm

    The Butt Plug? That certainly has a wow factor. Reminds me of a joke where some guys sit in a sauna and one of them receives a fax. You can imagine where it comes out…

  2. #2 by Herman on July 10, 2007 - 10:44 am

    The movie name is GATTACA not GATTICA (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0119177/).

    [fixed, thanks — I should have remembered the letters were from the four DNA base pairs — avi]

  3. #3 by George Quiroga on August 16, 2007 - 12:39 pm

    Hmmm…… the Solar Carbon machine sounds exactly like nature’s green plants. The “still-to-be- proven chemical process” is called photosynthesis :-)

    GQ

  4. #4 by avi on August 16, 2007 - 5:11 pm

    George, that’s the idea. But photosynthesis mainly produces carbohydrates which are meant to be burned. Producing carbon nanotubes directly would let us mimic more of the plant’s cell-building mechanisms — using the energy to build stuff and potentially produce net energy without burning any of the carbon compounds.

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