From 'bots to EVs--5 predictions for '12 in cutting-edge tech

Innovators are blessed with powerful tools and building blocks to pursue scientific breakthroughs and tackle the world's toughest problems. Here's where the action will be in 2012.

Robots: one of many areas where innovation is enriched by better microprocessors and sensors, including the Kinect controller. Martin LaMonica/CNET

Thanks in no small part to Moore's Law, engineers and entrepreneurs now have incredibly powerful tools at their hands, creating a fertile environment for invention.

In the year ahead, we're guaranteed more powerful supercomputers and smartphones from the tech industry's basic building block--the microchip. But in a world where the amount of information doubles every year, computers' ability to make sense of it has never been more vital, touching every field of scientific research from robotics to satellite imagery.

Meanwhile, advances in very different fields--materials science and biotech--are paving the way for better batteries, biofuels, and cleaner sources of energy.

As we approach the new year, here are five predictions on how cutting edge and green technologies will make waves this year. Regardless whether any big technical breakthroughs will be claimed, we know it will be a fast--and fun--ride.

Computing spreads far beyond "computers"
For years, we've heard about how the physical world will become an "Internet of things" and people can, Tron Legacy-like, touch the walls of buildings like they're operating a tablet computer. For the most part, the vision of ubiquitous computing is still just vision. But computing is steadily expanding beyond its traditional confines.

First take a look at your driveway. Cars are becoming Internet-connected, letting people stream music or schedule when their electric batteries are recharged. It's happening in the home, too.

The Nest thermostat isn't the first to be WiFi-enabled, but if it proves popular, it will get more people used to operating their homes from a smart phone or tablet the way they'd check their Facebook status.

Increasingly, the Internet is reaching beyond PCs and phones to sensors. The JawBone wrist sensor, which plugs into smart phones to help people track their sleep or exercise, is just one type of sensor that connects to more powerful computers in the cloud . Imagine sensors on bridges sending off alerts when they detect a structural flaw or smart meters providing a real-time read on energy or water consumption for a more efficient grid.

All those instrumented devices need big computers and fat networks to collect and make sense of that data.

Green tech hits speed bumps
The business of running green-tech start-ups has become a rocky road for many entrepreneurs and investors, but upstream innovation will continue at a good clip.

The political fall-out from the failure of government-backed Solyndra puts any subsidies for cleaner renewable energy at risk. Even federal funding for science and research and development, such as the ARPA-E agency, will be on the chopping block. Meanwhile, venture capitalists, who were once enamored with green tech, have learned the hard way how difficult and expensive it is to build new energy companies. Given all that and muted fossil fuel prices , expect the buzz around green tech to stay low and many startups to focus on niche, efficiency-oriented products.

But the basic materials science work on better batteries, fuel cells, renewable fuels, and more efficient solar cells will continue because ultimately, natural resources are limited and polluting has a societal cost. Biotech will have a huge role here: powerful techniques in genetic engineering are opening new doors for developing plant-derived fuels and chemicals.

In terms of commercializing energy-related research, China, rather than the U.S., has emerged as both the lead producer and user of clean techologies.

Robots get to work
iRobot hit it big with the Roomba vacuum cleaner and it has a pipeline of other hopefuls. But humanoid robots, while generating many blog posts, will remain toys rather than useful daily tools.

The real action in robotics is doing dirty or dangerous work that humans would rather not do. That means customers will be the military, hospitals, and health care facilities, and industrial manufacturers. Tools from other fields, such as 3D image sensor on the Kinect video game console , and software development tools will help make robotics more economical.

That's not to say consumer-oriented 'bots are passe. iRobot, for one, is working hard on Eva, a home robot that's a moving pedestal with a tablet for a "head." Now all we need are apps to give people a reason to buy one.

Electric vehicles sales don't match the hype
To mangle a line from sci-fi writer William Gibson, electrification is the future of transportation, but it's not yet evenly distributed. So it will go for electric vehicles, which are very enjoyable to drive but still pricey for the mass market.

The Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf will get competition from Ford, Tesla Motors, and many others. But unless there's a huge spike in the price of gas or breakthrough in batteries, most consumers will gravitate to lower-costing hybrids and plug-in hybrids. Pure EVs will serve a smaller audience --either those who want to cut their oil dependence or those who enjoy the smoother ride. Still, plug-in vehicles will continue to take hold in pockets, such as fleet operators looking to save money on fuel and regions with electricity rates and charging stations for plug-ins.

One electric vehicle that may be the surprise this year is electric bicycles. Millions are already sold in China. Perhaps better batteries may make e-bikes and scooters a hit elsewhere.

The final frontier--space--gets closer and Earth gets clearer
The crazy idea of colonizing space sounds less crazy all the time. In addition to NASA-sponsored missions, there are a few privately funded efforts for space travel. Paul Allen was the latest billionaire to join with the launch of Stratolaunch which hopes to make space tourism safer and "accessible" (at least to millionaires).

Meanwhile on Earth, the flood of beautiful satellite imagery and Google Earth applications will allow people to see natural wonders in far corners of the world--all from their favorite digital gadget. Imagery and sensors will also be integral to monitoring the environment and tracking the effects of a changing climate.

 

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