As the economy appears to falter and as more Americans fear that the country is on the wrong track, here's something to keep in mind: There is hope on the horizon.
History is filled with examples of how technology helped usher in new eras of prosperity. To help build the case for optimism, the MIT News Office asked a collection of MIT faculty and researchers for their thoughts on the potentially life-altering technologies that lie just around the corner. Here's a sample of what they said:
Biosolar Cells - Shuguang Zhang
Digital Fabrication - Neil Gershenfeld
Education - Eric Klopfer
Electrochemical Energy - Paula Hammond
Embedded Electronics - Michael S. Strano
Fusion - Leslie Bromberg
Life Extension - Mehmet Fatih Yanik
Mitigating Autism - Rosalind W. Picard
Problem Solving - Ed Boyden
Robots - Rodney Brooks
Sustainable Cities - William J. Mitchell
Transcending Technology - Rebecca Henderson
New technology is a source of wealth that can elevate the standard of living of all humankind. For the first time we are challenged not only to enhance our way of life but also to also protect all life forms. Part of the response to this challenge will be increasing production of materials and foods by biologically based processes.
Thus, design of biological organisms and engineering of production processes will be more important tomorrow than today. We need to make investments now. In the short term, the merging of engineering and biology will generate new technologies that will impact the economy through generation of better medicines, agriculture and materials.
Among the most pressing challenges to civilization, nothing is greater than securing our energy future.
A low-cost and flexible biosolar energy nanodevice is one of the long-term solutions. Currently, solar cells are expensive and not affordableâ€”even for the most-developed nations. Radical solutions must be found. Nature has already made efficient photosynthesis molecular nanomachines in thermophilic photosynthetic bacteria, algae and plants. We can isolate or emulate them to stabilize them in extended time onto inexpensive semiconducting nanostructured surface in extremely high density to directly harvest photons. This process must be simple, easy to follow and affordable even for developing nations. Our laboratory is developing the process for a decentralized or individualized system for a very low cost photovoltaic device: biosolar cells.
The most significant coming technology is the digitization of fabrication, the impact of which will be analogous to the digitization of communication and computation. Like those earlier revolutions, the consequence will be personalization, in this case, allowing anyone to make almost anything, anywhere. Coupled with digital video and digital libraries, this means that the formerly scarce resources (facilities, books, people) of advanced technical institutions (such as MIT) can become much more widely accessible.
The economy of tomorrow will be determined by the students today. As we begin to realize that strict standards-based education has squeezed out much of what makes the U.S. education system unique, new solutions will be required. Solutions that emphasize creativity and innovation, qualities that have become the envy of the rest of the world, will be required. Look for schools to embrace systems that emphasize and enhance these characteristics, including games, media, collaboration and social networking. These products will bridge the widening gap between what students do in and out of school. Solutions such as these, which incorporate both services and software, could be the next frontier for schools, providing business opportunities and preparing for future innovation.
Long-standing efforts to manipulate materials on the nanometer scale are coming to fruition in some areas. One of those areas is electrochemical energyâ€”devices such as solar cells, capacitors and supercapacitors, fuel cells and batteries. Electrochemical energy involves the reduction and oxidation of materials to either generate energy or to store it.
A number of the challenges in achieving high storage capacity and being able to generate power in a highly efficient manner involves manipulating the interfaces between organic and inorganic material systems and facilitating the pathways of charge in devices. In recent years, there has really been an explosion in the number of methods and the level of control over which we can do that. This could mean weâ€™re on the cusp of very real achievement in this areaâ€”leading to new, more-efficient photovoltaic devices, batteries and fuel cells.
Michael S. Strano
One transformation on the near term horizon is the embedding of low-cost electronics into almost every object that we encounter on a day-to-day basis. A pair of sunglasses may have the ability to project a visual display accessing the Internet, have an embedded cell phone and actuate other devices as one glances at them. The technology for this already exists. Flexible electronic paper and electronic clothing will change the way information is projected and harnessed at a personal level. Everyday objects may sense, detect and constantly adjust to our environment, controlling temperature, lighting, noise level, etc.
At the Plasma Science and Fusion Center, our largest projects involve fusion energy research, which has great potential benefit for the long term, but not for the immediate future. However, other developing plasma technologies and spin-off technologies could have a more immediate benefit.
Imagine using garden, forest and household wastes to make energy. Using plasma to convert waste to fuel could make a substantial difference in our lives. The hydrocarbons from waste could be turned into hydrogen-rich gas, which could be passed through catalysts to create liquid fuel. Although the process could increase the cost of fuel, it is CO2-neutral and would provide energy security (i.e., independence from fuel provided by unstable governments). The question is: Can we make it small enough so that fuel can be generated in a distributed manner? And will the fuel be stable and have the characteristics necessary for use in internal combustion engines?
Mehmet Fatih Yanik
Significant extension of the human lifespan by disease-preventive and tissue-regenerative technologies within the next one to two decades will dramatically impact the world economy. These technologies will probably span everything from small molecule therapies and nano- and microscale devices to whole organ replacement technologies using stem cells. Beyond the scientific and technological hurdles, temporary challenges will include the cost versus benefit of these technologies, legal and ethical concerns, and regulations and strategic investment choices among various options. The current economic slowdown may delay this revolution, but I strongly believe it is unstoppable, and hopefully it will take place within most of our lifetimes.
Rosalind W. Picard
An estimated $35 billion in direct medical, direct non-medical, and â€œlost productivityâ€ costs are spent each year to care for children diagnosed with autism and related disorders in America. Beyond these financial costs, however, is the enormous opportunity cost incurred by not enabling these individuals to become full participants in society.
My students and I are building new technologies to enable people diagnosed with autismâ€”now 1 in 150 American childrenâ€” to be able to communicate better and have better independent and interdependent living skills. These technologies are also likely to have some application for people with Parkinson's, sleep disorders, non-verbal learning disabilities epilepsy and other problems.
We humans are terrible at taking future problems seriously and solving them, especially those that present consequences more than a few days off. A great need is the ability to effectively solve problems when they are small, or at least before they become enormous threats. This problem is present at the personal, the community and the global levelâ€”whether itâ€™s dealing with personal diet and exercise and diabetes, or global climate change. Why are we so bad at anticipating, deciding and acting upon the prevention of problems in the future? One possibility is that we need to use our knowledge of the mind to engineer better information-handling tools and software, for visualizing, understanding and figuring out how to fix problems. We need to understand data and deal with problems at a higher level: Information, by itself, is not enough.
As the baby boomers age, the demographics of Europe, North America, East Asia and Australia will demand that the productivity of all aspects of manual work increase dramatically. Fortunately, robots are just now maturing to the point where they can help with real productivity at practical prices. From virtually no mobile robots deployed anywhere in the world six years ago we now have thousands on active duty in the U.S. military and millions cleaning the floors of American homes. This is the lead-up to a classic hockey-stick growth curve. Just as computers we interact with personally (e.g., desktops, laptops, PDAs, cellphones) transformed our lives over the last 25 years, so, too, will robots transform our lives over the coming 25. And it just so happens that Massachusetts is the epicenter of this nascent industry.
William J. Mitchell
The building and rebuilding of our cities in â€œsmartâ€ sustainable form will produce the next big improvement in our lives. This is an essential task, and a massive one that has the potential to generate a long-term economic boom.
As with the Internet, the revolution will not result from a single technology, but from the timely convergence of multiple streams of technological development.
One part of it will be the replacement of the clunky, inefficient, dangerous gasoline-powered automobile with personal mobility systems based upon fleets of lightweight, â€œsmart,â€ wirelessly networked electric vehicles. A second part will be the emergence of clean, efficient, geographically distributed systems for electricity generation, storage and distribution. A third part will be the embedding of networking capability and intelligence in buildings and products of all kinds. And finally, ubiquitous networking willâ€”like a nervous systemâ€”tie all this together so that cities respond, like intelligent organisms, to dynamic changes in their environments and the needs of their inhabitants.
When the MIT News Office asked Rebecca Henderson for her thoughts, she replied that she did not necessarily agree with the premise. Henderson foresees significant social, political and environmental stresses around the world in the coming yearsâ€”challenges that technology will not be able to fix by itself.
I think what we have here is a social and political problem, not a technological problem. I donâ€™t mean to call into question the technological enterprise or suggest that we at MIT donâ€™t have an extremely important role to play. But without the political and social will to value externalitiesâ€”most obviously carbon but more generally environmental destructionâ€”weâ€™re not going to use these technologies until itâ€™s too little, too late.
I am struck by how the political discourse across the world continues to talk about growthâ€”how there will be no tradeoffs and how technology will mean we wonâ€™t have to choose. Itâ€™s not at all clear that thatâ€™s correct.
The pressure for growth in India and China will not slow, so the price for primary commodities will continue to escalate. Correspondingly, the rate at which we emit carbon dioxide, use up fresh water supplies and put arable land and the oceans under stress will continue to increase. We have already started to see significant political problems in countries suffering from severe environmental stressesâ€”Sudan is the most obvious exampleâ€”and it is possible weâ€™ll begin to see breakdowns or partial failures in the global supply chains that provide developed regions such as Europe and the United States with very significant fractions of their needs.
We tend to assume that everything is nicely linear and everything either goes up very gently or comes down very gently. Historically thatâ€™s not accurate. Weâ€™ve had very nonlinear timesâ€”the most obvious would be the Great Depression. But once you get accelerating economic and political pressure then it becomes increasingly difficult to do anything about the environmental root causes.
Think about it: Here we are, one of richest societies the world has ever known, and we are not comfortable making at least minimal sacrifices to postpone or take out insurance against climatic stress. Now, suppose we all get a lot poorer and thereâ€™s massive political unrest: Who is going to put a carbon tax in place? You can quite straightforwardly write a scenario in which we do nothing to curb carbon output and the kind of nonlinear effects that scientists are worried about start to kick inâ€”things such as a collapse in the worldâ€™s fisheries by 2050, or an increase in the release of methane from permafrost that causes an acceleration in global warming and a corresponding rise in sea levels.
I must stress that I think most of these problems are eminently containable. But left unchecked, we could see cumulative shocks that make an incredibly complex and interlinked system begin to need to become much less complex and much less interlinked.