Plastic chips, brain machines: What will the future hold?

MIT's Technology Review magazine releases its Top 10 list of emerging trends that just might change the world.

5 min read
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 
• Biometrics 
• Natural-language processing 
• Microphotonics 
• Untangling code 
• Robot design 
• Microfluidics 

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 chores."

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 robots.

Encryption schemes
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 acceptance yet.

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.

Mining databases
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 England.

"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."

More obscure
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 cheaply.

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 Rebecca Zacks, "that many industry observers predict microfluidics will do for biotech what the transistor did for electronics."