It's been argued in literature that North Americans have experienced such an unprecedented boom in technological innovations, since the period between roughly 1870 and 1970, that we may never see the like again. That may be true, in terms of the sheer number of revolutionary technological innovations entering the marketplace in such a short span of years, but there is still plenty of room for new and important technological innovations.
Making predictions about the future is difficult but, if the past is any indicator, some future technological innovations will arise out of things that have already been imagined by science-fiction and fantasy-fiction writers.
If this seems hard to believe, consider some of the things that were imagined by the many science fiction writers that were hired to develop episodes for the original Star Trek television series in the 1960s:
- Handheld tablet computers, which many, if not most of us now use every day,
- Flip-style, handheld mobile radios, which were popular in the 1990s, and now are already obsolete,
- Simple versions of the tricorder are now beginning to appear in the form of handheld diagnostic devices and personal health and activity trackers. A very simple version is the popular Fitbit,
- Interactive, natural-sounding computers with which users can have conversations and ask questions, are now available, such as IBM’s Watson, and Apple’s Siri,
- Simple food replicators, are now appearing in the form of 3-D food printers, which have been adopted in many specialty bakeries, and
- Realistic, single-purpose androids (humaniform robots) have been commercialized and adopted in some businesses, such as for giving directions in shopping malls.
"scotty, beam us up"
Looking further forward, some other concepts developed by the Star Trek writers are not yet available as technological innovations, but the principles and proofs of concept are beginning to emerge, such as:
- The first “cloaking device,” that can shield objects from optical view by bending light around them, was built on a very small scale in 2006.
- The first “tractor beams,” that can move physical objects have been built. For example, a laser beam was used to move gold-coated, hollow-glass spheres by tens of centimetres, and in two directions, in 2014.
- The first demonstration of “teleportation” was published in 2015, in which a special quantum mechanics effect was used to teleport specific energy states of a photon over 100 kilometres of optical fibre. A baby step, to be sure, but an important one.
ahead of the curve
Moving beyond the imaginings from Star Trek, we have:
- Expanding functions for robots, especially as computerized artificial intelligence (AI) advances, in which robots become increasingly integrated into our daily lives, including humaniform and nano-sized robots.
- Not yet demonstrated is the “space elevator,” a system for lifting people or materials from earth to a space station in geostationary orbit without the need for rockets. Versions of this have been imagined since 1895. A tether-based system could be used if a sufficiently light and strong tether material could be developed, and it has been proposed that carbon nanotubes might be suitable.
- 3-D metal printing is becoming a reality with the demonstration of several approaches by which metal powders, or metal particles imbedded in polymer binders, are used to build-up a part. After this, the part is heated to remove the polymer and fuse the metal. This enables alloys, like steel, to be fabricated, layer-by-layer in a 3-D printer. If the technology becomes practical for large-scale, high-volume manufacturing it could create a disruptive change to the entire manufacturing industry.
The future of sci-fi inspired technologies
These are merely illustrations of the kinds of practical applications that may one day be derived from what are currently only theories. We can already break matter down into its constituent particles, or molecules, or atoms at will (via classical chemistry and physics), and we now have a fairly good understanding of the means by which such entities can be caused to self-assemble in various ways (via nanoscience and nanotechnology).
Current theories suggest that we should be able to move particles from one physical location to another without them having to physically travel there (quantum mechanics), to change their behaviours from those of particles to those of waves (wave-particle duality), and/or to cause them to travel in a way that bends time (special theory of relativity). Who knows what practical problems or opportunities may be addressed with the aid of with such knowledge?
There is plenty of scope for many more technological innovations in the future. If you’d like to gain some insight into what might be possible, try reading some science fiction.
Schramm, L.L., Technological Innovation. An Introduction, de Gruyter, Berlin, 2018.