Emerging Technology Trends that Will Change the World


Plastic Chips, Brain Machines: What Will the Future Hold?

Source: CNET

December 29, 2000

According to CNET: Computer chips made of plastic, artificial limbs that communicate directly with the brain, and robots that build more powerful robots are all part of the top 10 emerging technology trends that will change the world. The top 10 list was published in the January issue of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's [MIT] magazine, Technology Review.

David Rotman, the magazine's deputy editor told CNET on Thursday, "We were looking for things that were just emerging now and over the next five years would begin to have a major impact."

Biometrics and speech recognition, have been on the verge of widespread use for quite some time. Others such as microphotonics and microfluidics chosen by the MIT magazine editors are topics that most people have never heard of, reports CNET.

Information technology, nanotechnology and biotechnology, are the three areas of development that the magazine focused on.

The magazine highlights one significant area in biotechnology. This area covers the work on brain-machine interfaces that may someday allow people to control artificial devices that replace lost functions.

Current day research is limited, with scientists being 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. Duke University neurobiologist Miguel Nicolelis is one of the people who has realized the tremendous potential of this research.

Nicolelis told the MIT journal, "Imagine if someone could do for the brain what the pacemaker did for the heart."

The magazine also suggested that in the near future we might see that the field of robotics could be poised to move beyond the niche market of performing simple, highly repetitive tasks.

According to CNET, Technology Review senior editor David Talbot writes, "Robot builders make a convincing case that in 2001, robots are where personal computers were in 1980, poised to break into the marketplace as common corporate tools and ubiquitous consumer products performing life's tedious chores."

Many have realized that the problem has been that robots have been costly and difficult to design. The magazine highlights the work of Brandeis University researcher Jordan Pollack, who builds robots that can build other robots.

Another area of growing focus is digital rights management. The major issue addressed is the attempt to protect intellectual property in an age in which creative works are just another stream of binary code. The magazine cites the work of a company named ContentGuard, formed from research done at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center. ContentGuard's goal is to create an encryption scheme that is seamless when used lawfully but is difficult to crack.

According to the magazine, the McLean, Va.-based ContentGuard is looking at a "multiple key" approach. This means 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. The magazine also noted that numerous other proposals, including hardware and other software solutions, are being developed and marketed. But it also cited that none has won widespread acceptance yet.

Also noted in the top 10 list was biometrics, with its capabilities moving from fingerprint recognition to more advanced facial recognition as well as gaining other unique traits that could provide security in the digital world.

According to CNET, natural language processing is another area seen as being on the brink of fulfilling its potential.

The magazine noted that while the most powerful speech recognition available commercially is only capable of taking dictation or processing simple commands, researchers are making headway on machines capable of handling extended conversations spoken in the language and tone that people normally use.

Yet another project cited by the magazine is research being carried out at the U.S. Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency. There, scientists are working on interfaces that will be able to understand the key to human conversation - pointing and gesturing.

Also outlined was work on chips made from plastic or organic materials that are going on at IBM, Lucent Technologies, MIT, Penn State and the University of Cambridge in England.

Rotman told CNET, "A lot of these fields are like that. People have thought about them for a while but now are reaching a critical mass."

The magazine went on to mention researchers in microphotonics that are working with tiny crystals that reflect light exactly. Such photonic crystals could be the keys to preventing the Internet from slowing to a crawl. Internet traffic moves quickly through the heart of the Internet over fiber-optic lines but slows to a relative crawl while moving through electronic switches and routers.

CNET reports that numerous companies large and small are working on other types of optical switches that use tiny mirrors or microscopic bubbles to move information. According to the magazine, "None of these fixes has the technical elegance and widespread utility of photonic crystals."

In microfluidics, the magazine reports that scientists are trying 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.

CNET reports that Technology Review associate editor Rebecca Zacks wrote, "It's a vision so compelling, that many industry observers predict microfluidics will do for biotech what the transistor did for electronics."

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