Computer chips made of plastic. Artificial limbs that receive
messages directly from the brain. Robots that build more powerful robots.
It's hard to say for sure what the next big thing will be, but these items
made the list of 10 emerging technology trends that will change the world,
according to the January issue of
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology magazine Technology Review.
"We were looking for things that were just emerging now and over the next
five years would begin to have a major impact," David Rotman, the magazine's
deputy editor, said Thursday.
Some of the items, such as biometrics and speech recognition, have been on the verge of widespread use for quite some time. Others chosen by the MIT
magazine editors are topics that most people have never heard of, such as
microphotonics and microfluidics.
The magazine focused on developments in three areas: information technology,
nanotechnology and biotechnology.
One significant area in biotechnology, the magazine highlights, is work on
brain-machine interfaces that could someday allow people to control
artificial devices that replace lost functions. Today, research is more
limited, with scientists able to take signals from individual neurons in an
animal's brain and send them to a robot that can turn the signals into
motion. But the potential is huge, according to Duke University
neurobiologist Miguel Nicolelis.
"Imagine if someone could do for the brain what the pacemaker did for the
heart," Nicolelis told the MIT journal.
Technology Review has named 10 emerging trends that it asserts will change the world.
• Brain-machine interfaces
• Flexible transistors
• Data mining
• Digital rights management
• Natural-language processing
• Untangling code
• Robot design
In the purely digital realm, the magazine suggests that the field of
robotics could be poised to move beyond the niche market of performing
simple, highly repetitive tasks.
"Robot builders make a convincing case that in 2001, robots are where
personal computers were in 1980," writes Technology Review senior
editor David Talbot, "poised to break into the marketplace as common
corporate tools and ubiquitous consumer products performing life's tedious
Until now the problem has been that robots have been costly and difficult to
design. One approach that the magazine highlights is the work of Brandeis
University researcher Jordan Pollack, who builds robots that can build other
In the IT realm, the magazine focuses on the growing significance of digital
rights management, or the attempt to protect intellectual property in an age
in which creative works are just another stream of ones and zeros. Among
those working in the area is a company called ContentGuard, formed from
research done at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center. Its goal, according to
the magazine, is to create an encryption scheme that is seamless when used
lawfully but is difficult to thwart.
McLean, Va.-based ContentGuard is looking at a "multiple key" approach,
meaning that even if one person cracks the code to get a piece of protected
content, anyone else to whom it is sent would have to crack another piece of
code. Numerous other proposals, including hardware and other software-based
plans, are being developed and marketed. However, none has won widespread
Another problem of the digital age is that today's software is made up of
enormous amounts of code. Untangling those miles of code and finding
shortcuts is an absolute necessity. Researchers at Xerox's PARC have an
approach called "aspect-oriented programming" that lets programmers treat
similar situations throughout their applications as a single issue. Once
they have a piece of code that works they can then automatically weave it
throughout the program.
The technique can already be used in a limited way as an extension to the
Java language, known as AspectJ, with a free beta version available for download.
Meanwhile, data mining and biometrics are two technologies that
already are in fairly wide use, but whose full promise has yet to be reached.
Taking the basic approaches used today and adding more powerful processors
to the mix could open doors in both fields.
Data mining is the use of algorithms to find patterns within huge databases.
One growing area of data mining, for example, combines image recognition and
natural-language processing--sophisticated speech-recognition software that
can make sense of typical conversation--to find just the clip someone is
looking for in a stream of video.
Likewise, biometrics is moving from fingerprint recognition to more
advanced facial recognition and other unique traits that could provide
security in the digital world.
Natural-language processing is another area that the magazine sees as poised
to soon fulfill its potential. While the most powerful speech recognition
available commercially is only capable of taking dictation
or processing simple commands, researchers are making progress on machines
capable of handling extended conversations spoken in the language and tone
that people normally use.
Researchers at the U.S. Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects
Agency are even working on interfaces that will be able to make sense of the
pointing and gesturing that is key to human conversation.
The field of flexible
transistors, a possible replacement for silicon, is another area that
has been talked about for a while but is finally producing some results.
Work on chips made from plastic or organic materials is going on at IBM,
Lucent Technologies, MIT, Penn State and the University of Cambridge in
"A lot of these fields are like that," Rotman said. "People have thought
about them for a while but now are reaching a critical mass."
Moving into the realm of the obscure, researchers in microphotonics are
working with tiny crystals that reflect light exactly. Such photonic
crystals could be the key to preventing the Internet from slowing to a
standstill. Bits today move quickly through the heart of the Internet over
fiber-optic lines but slow to a relative crawl while moving through
electronic switches and routers.
Companies large and small are working on other types of optical switches
that use tiny mirrors or microscopic bubbles to move information, but
according to the magazine, "none of these fixes has the technical elegance
and widespread utility of photonic crystals."
And finally, in microfluidics, scientists try to harness on a small scale
the same forces of physics that "move oceans, mountains and galaxies." By
using amounts of liquid thousands of times smaller than a drop of water,
experiments and medical tests could be performed much more quickly and
Applied physicist Stephen Quake and his team at the California
Institute of Technology have created a DNA analyzer using microfluidics that
works far faster than its conventional counterpart, the magazine notes.
"It's a vision so compelling," writes Technology Review associate editor
"that many industry observers predict microfluidics will do for biotech what
the transistor did for electronics."