The world is changing, that much should be obvious to anyone. Change, after all, is the only constant, as greek philosopher Heraclitus said. There are some people who make the change happen. They look to the future in their imaginations, conjure images of the future they’d like to see, and try to figure out how to make those imaginings into reality. They envision, discover, develop, and build stuff. And sometimes, what they discover and create can irreversibly change the world. In other words, they are building the future that many of us only read, watch, and dream about.
Here is a selection of companies and projects from varying fields whom are building the future. The key thing to keep in mind is what we get when we put them all together; what will the world look like once these projects come to their fruition.
1. Tesla Motors
Personal transportation is without a doubt an ubiquitous need, and an important component of modern civilisation, but as it stands right now it is too dependent on fossil fuels. This makes it increasingly more expensive, and significantly contributes to the sustainability problem we face with our reliance on oil to power our civilisation.
Tesla Motors is building sleek cars that need no gasoline to run. They only need pure electricity, regardless of how it is generated. This enables the kind of flexibility we haven’t had before. While electricity could come from existing fossil fuels based power plants, it could just as well come from the sun, and that’s exactly what Tesla Motors is pushing for.
Their new network of Supercharger stations generates electricity from sunlight, and offers this electricity to Tesla car drivers. Not only can these Superchargers supply electricity to drivers, but it can generate a small excess and feed it back into the grid.
This promises a future in which cars essentially run “for free”, on pure sunlight. Not only that, but they generate no pollution, no smell of burning gasoline, and no noise. That’s as futuristic as it gets for cars.
2. Google Self Driving Cars
Or maybe not. Even more futuristic would be electric, solar powered cars that drive themselves to a desired destination. Google’s project has been ongoing for years, and has consistently shown good results. Google’s self-driving cars could actually be safer than those operated by a human. Computers never get sleepy, or drunk, or lose concentration, after all. And they think quite fast.
In fact, California has just legalised the use of self-driving cars on its territory, and is actually the third US state to do so.
Bridge nanotechnology with solar power generation and you’ve got something truly fascinating. Nanotechnology, wherever applied, tends to generate great increases in efficiency and cost effectiveness.
NanoSolar is using nanotechnology to significantly increase the efficiency of solar panel production. They’ve developed a way to print solar cells on rollable sheets of aluminum, and the solar efficiency of NanoSolar panels is competitive with that of traditional ones, and could at some point exceed it.
Coupled with a solar cell printing breakthrough by the University of California, we may soon be able to turn almost any surface around us into an energy producing one, which could result in the boom of available cheap energy, and actually solve the energy crisis.
Electric cars, and all our electricity from the sun. The future’s looking bright so far. But what’s next?
4. Makerbot and FormLabs (3D Printing)
Now that we drive for free and have all our electricity needs covered how about making some cool stuff at a push of a button? 3D printing revolution is just barely getting started, but the potential is huge.
Many liken the current stage of development to the early stages of the computer revolution. Parallels are uncanny. In the early days of personal computing the established computer companies used huge expensive computers that only experts could use. But then hobbyists and enthusiasts started making these small computers that soon anyone could have access to, starting the computer revolution.
Similarly, 3D printers, which have existed for quite a while now, were mainly rather large expensive devices used by relatively few for the purpose of “rapid prototyping”. But companies like Makerbot and FormLabs are creating small, relatively affordable 3D printers that virtually anyone could use. This could start a revolution just as significant, if not more so, as the computer revolution.
The reason is that a 3D printer turns digital files, containing a model of a physical object, into actual physical objects. You can create these models yourself from scratch, copy someone else’s models, or even replicate an existing physical object by scanning it with a 3D scanner to create the appropriate model. In other words, a 3D printer kind of blurs the line between the physical world and the digital world. While so far we could effortlessly copy only digital files, with 3D printers we can copy physical things, with a lot less effort than before. This is the beginning of the digitisation of the physical world.
Naturally, this is opening the pandora’s box of “intellectual property” issues as it would allow people to simply copy proprietary designs and turn them into actual products on their own instead of buying the product from the original manufacturer. It makes CAD files into an equivalent to MP3’s in a never-ending saga of digital “piracy”.
Another fact contributing to the revolutionary potential of 3D printing is that just switching the material, using cells instead of various forms of plastic, allows printing organic things such as artificial meat, and even whole human organs ready to be transplanted.
The important effect of the rise of 3D printers is that they also form a first real world precedent for what many Star Trek geeks know as a nano-replicator. It is hard not to see a 3D printer as a basic precursor to replicators. The form factor, the application, the ability to replicate physical things; they are all quite familiar to Star Trek aficionados. The only difference between 3D printers and nano-replicators is in the method of replication, and precision. While 3D printers build things in micro layers of raw material, nano-replicators literally arrange specific atoms into proper molecular structures making up the objects being replicated.
The latter is not as far off as it might seem, however. Replication at the nanoscale is already possible, and given how quickly things are evolving, we may see a first nano-replicator much sooner than Star Trek would have us believe.
And it will be companies like MakerBot and FormLabs that will be delivering this amazing power into the hands of the masses; truly transforming our world. In combination with ubiquitous solar electricity, 3D printers and then replicators, could actually create what some call a “post-scarcity future”, a future in which you have all the energy you ever want, and can create (replicate) any thing (including food) you want. In the era of nanoreplicators, anything is a raw material, including trash. So the cost of materials also essentially falls to zero.
5. Synthetic Genomics
Synthetic Genomics is a company that first created life in a laboratory. That just about sums up the reason it belongs on this list. It is at the forefront of the fields of synthetic biology and bioengineering, and as both of these words imply, they are all about designing and creating biological living things that solve some pressing human problems.
For instance, one of the most promising uses of synthetic biology is synthesising fossil fuels. So long as we still significantly rely on fossil fuels to power our civilisation this particular application is of immense importance. Even if we should be cutting down on our reliance on fossil fuels, it helps to have a buffer as extracting oil becomes more and more expensive.
There are many other potentially revolutionary uses of synthetic biology, such as human augmentation through reprogramming of our genes, augmentation of other living organisms (allowing for things like luminescent trees, for example), medicinal uses as we gain a far greater ability to synthesise cures, and ultimately going as far as bringing extinct animal species back to life, or creating entirely new life forms.
Of course, with such great power inevitably comes great responsibility. As we wield the ability to create and modify life forms we have to take into account the consequences they could have on the ecosystem we are living in. We don’t want to end up creating powerful virulent diseases or life forms that end up destroying our environmental ecosystem. Of course, with the power to create life comes an improved ability to rectify such problems as well, but it’s better to prevent such problems to begin with.
6. Virgin Galactic
Perhaps the most prominent NewSpace company, Virgin Galactic, seems to have come closest to achieving the dream of opening up human space flight to the masses. While we are still waiting for the first commercial space flights to begin, they seem to be just around the corner. The SpacePort America in New Mexico is complete, and Virgin Galactic has completed 15 test flights of SpaceShipTwo by February 2012. So all the basic components seem to be coming together for commercial flights to begin.
Virgin Galactic has been booking flights for years now, at an initial price of $200k USD for Pioneer astronauts. They are also offering booking for later flights for a significantly lower price of $20k. Initial plans involved progressive price reduction as more and more flights are completed, to lower than $10k per flight.
Meanwhile, they’ve also developed a LauncherOne system for quicker and cheaper deployment of satellites. While satellites are traditionally carried into orbit on a rocket blasting off from Earth, with LauncherOne the rocket is first carried into the air and then launched into orbit from there, reducing costs. The system uses the same White Knight carrier that’s used to carry SpaceShipTwo before its launch into orbit.
If Virgin Galactic and companies like it are successful, in the future we may all be able to afford a trip to space where we can experience true weightlessness and see our planet from far above, perhaps changing our perspectives on our lives and our planet in a profound way.
Other companies, such as Bigelow Aerospace, even want to build hotels in space, promising the possibility of spending entire vacations in orbit, just in the neighbourhood of the International Space Station, which has quietly been orbiting our planet for about 14 years.
7. Planetary Resources
Let’s go even higher! Planetary Resources, founded in 2012 by a group of forward looking multimillionaire entrepreneurs, has set its sights on near Earth asteroids. And they want nothing else than to strip mine them of their vast resources, contributing billions to the Earth’s economy.
As it turns out near Earth asteroids are the “low hanging fruit” of the solar system, not that hard to reach, and as Planetary Resources intends to prove, not that impossible to mine.
But before the mining can begin, there will be a few still quite exciting steps to accomplish, and each step involves developing a more advanced series of spacecraft called “Arkyd“.
The first is Arkyd Series 100; the development and launch of “Leo”, the first private space telescope, and the first “within reach of the private citizen”. It will be used for asteroid prospecting, but can also be used for exploration of other objects in the solar system, as well as the Earth. This multipurpose nature of the telescope means that Planetary Resources will be offering concrete value well before they begin with their primary mission of mining the actual asteroids.
The next step will be to essentially put the propulsion engine on the Leo telescope, creating an “Interceptor”, an Arkyd Series 200 spacecraft that can fly-by asteroids and discover new ones.
Further evolution of the Arkyd spacecraft leads to Arkyd Series 300, Rendezvous Prospector, which would be an Interceptor equipped with deep space communication lasers. They’ll be able to reach farther asteroids, and send vital information about them. This will help prepare for actual mining operations.
They first intend to mine water, to enable human space exploration, since water is the basis for life. It can also be split into oxygen and hydrogen to create rocket fuel.
Let’s get back to Earth, and the amazing lifestyle that could be enabled here by cutting edge technology. One such technology are brain-computer interfaces such as the one already in commercial availability; Emotiv’s EPOC “neuroheadset”. It actually works, and works fairly well for one of the first commercial products of its kind.
The way it works is reading your brain’s electric signals and translating these signals into commands. To recognise your commands it’s software first has to go through the learning process where it records you focusing on a particular task or giving a particular command, so it can then be able to interpret the same signals to read the command.
The result is being able to issue a variety of commands to the computer which can be tied to a variety of activities. The EPOC neuroheadset can then be used as a hands free controller for games or a remote control for anything else that can be connected to and controlled by a computer. This leads us to our next section.
9. Belkin WeMo + LIFX
So we can control stuff with our minds, but before that can be terribly useful in everyday life we need to digitise our homes; make them smart. And these two projects represent the most efficient and cost effective ways yet of achieving exactly this. The beauty of both approaches is that they literally require no more than a minute to set up.
Belkin’s WeMo is a device that can be plugged into any electric outlet to turn it into a smarter one. It connects to your smartphone where you can turn it on or off over the internet, from anywhere you are. Combined with location services this enables such things as turning your TV or lights off when you take off. With a WeMo motion sensor, WeMo can also switch on or off based on your movements about the house.
LIFX is a smart LED light bulb that you can control from your smartphone. All you need to do is replace the existing lightbulbs with LIFX ones and install an app to be ready to go. LIFX bulbs can be dimmed, can change colour, can be programmed to turn off or on when you leave home or come back, and can even create colourful light shows when listening to music.
While this might not seem particularly revolutionary on its own, home automation is typically one of the things we imagine when thinking about the future, and is also portrayed in many science fiction stories. While the computer smarts have existed for a long time for such homes to become possible, their proliferation hasn’t been that great due to the cost of infrastructure augmentation or replacement. This is why these simplistic yet brilliant approaches are so significant. They enable this futuristic vision of smart home automation through solutions that are dead simple to implement; they simply tack on to our existing infrastructure turning it smart. That’s going to be the fastest way for home automation to become more of a norm than an exception.
10. Khan Academy
The future of education is online. The significance of this might not be obvious to those of us no longer in the educational system (either as students or teachers), but it’s actually very profound. Khan Academy is probably the greatest example of a new way to learn. Not only is it interactive, fun, and therefore motivating, but it also potentially improves the effectiveness of homeschooling, thereby reducing dependence on existing educational institutions and the long standing deficiencies associated with them.
Since such an educational system is ultimately responsible for how our society thinks and operates, because they educate them to think and operate in such ways, any significant transformation of the educational system is also a potential transformation of society itself. This is why evolution of education, here represented by the Khan Academy, is so important.
These are just some of the projects and companies that could change our world, but even just the few of these represent such dramatic change that it is almost mind boggling to think about. Just put all of these together, and what do you get?
You get a world in which energy is essentially free, physical devices are almost infinitely replicable for free, cars drive themselves for free, we create and augment human and non-human life to optimise ourselves and our environment. We go to space, explore the solar system and mine asteroids. And back home, our devices instantly bend to our wills, even by literally reading our minds. And our minds.. we train and educate ourselves more efficiently, cheaply, and independently than ever, further compounding the potential for further technological progress.