In the early half of 2018, MIT released their review of breakthrough technologies for the year. This included some game-changing futuristic technologies that are set to revolutionize the future.
They have done this since 2001 and 2018s has some very interesting, and potentially worrying developments, indeed.
From zero-carbon natural gas plant technology to others that are likely to raise some very real ethical concerns for the future, these technologies are bound to redefine the future.
1. Metal 3D Printing is set to revolutionize manufacturing
3D printing has been around for a while now but printing anything other than plastic has been expensive and slow. That was until various research centers and companies announced the development of their metal 3D printers in late 2017 and early 2018.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, for example, announced their development of a 3D printing method that can make stainless-steel parts twice as strong as traditionally made ones.
Private companies like Markforged and Desktop Metal, both startups, also began selling their own 3D metal printers at the start of 2018. Both of these companies' printers are, on average, around 100 times faster than older metal printing methods.
General Electric has also invested heavily in 3D metal printing that they plan to use to produce larger metal parts for aircraft.
The adoption of 3D printing for metal parts is set to revolutionize mass production.
Not only will companies be freed from needing to keep large inventories or metal parts but they can start to make lighter, stronger and more complex parts that simply aren't possible using conventional metal making methods.
2. Google Babel-fish earbuds were released this year
There has been an explosion in translation software over the last decade or so, but Google might have taken us one step closer to finally realizing the iconic Babel Fish from "The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy".
In 2018, Google announced their Pixel Bud earbuds. These buds integrate with their Pixel smartphones and Google Translate app to provide users with nye-on instant translations.
One participant wears the earbuds whilst the other holds the phone. The earbud holder speaks in their native language and the phone relays the translation from the phone's speakers.
In response, the other participant speaks into the phone's microphone which then translates, in near real-time, to the earbud user.
Whilst Google translate does already come with a conversation feature it can get confused by background noise. It also has trouble distinguishing when one or other of the participants have finished talking.
The earbuds mitigate with this issue by requiring the earbud user to tap and hold their finger on one of the earbuds. This manually splits the conversation between participants.
Whilst still in its infancy (many reports it's a bit buggy), this kind of technology will improve dramatically over the next few years. It seems human translators may soon be a thing of the past.
3. Gattaca style genetic fortune-telling is here today
The dystopian future depicted in the film Gattaca could be closer than we once thought thanks to new developments in genetic fortune-telling. Someday new parents could be given a DNA report card at the birth of their new bundle of joy.
These reports will provide predictions on their infant's chance of future heart disease, cancer, the likelihood of getting hooked on drugs, potential IQ and life expectancy, to name but a few.
The science behind this developed from the study of the genetics of more than a million people. This research has shown that traits like intelligence are governed not by one or two genes but of the average effects of many at the same time.
Whilst there are some real concerns over the potential abuse of this kind of information by third parties, it could offer real benefits for medical professionals.
Higher risk children and adults could have better tailored medical screening and monitoring as well as more customized treatments in the future.
But it should be born in mind that this development only offers predictions, not diagnoses. Plus, would parents and adult patients really want to know their likelihood of developing debilitating diseases like Alzheimer's?
4. The Smart-Cities of the future today
The cities of the future will be able to trace their origins to developments in cities like Toronto in Canada. Their Quayside project is hoping to build an urban neighborhood from the ground up integrating the latest in digital technology.
The project is being handled by New York-based Alphabet Sidewalk Labs who are collaborating with the Canadian government. This project's goal is to ground decision about design, policy, and technology on information gathered from a huge network of sensors.
These will monitor and report on everything from air quality to the movements of the city's citizens and everything else in-between. The vision is for all vehicles to be autonomous and shared to having robots performing menial tasks like delivering things and collecting waste.
Other cities around North America are hoping to do the same in the not too distant future. San Francisco, Denver, Los Angeles, and Boston are just some of them.
But like many other entries on this list, this kind of development does raise some understandable concerns about data security and privacy. Whilst the cities of the future will undoubtedly become smarter, is the loss of control of each citizen's privacy worth the cost?
Only time will tell how these kinds of developments will address this.
5. Articifical embryos are now a thing
Researchers at the University of Cambridge managed to create synthetic embryos in 2018.
Whilst it's unlikely the embryos could ever have grown into viable adults, they hint at a possibility of creating mammals without the need for 'natural' gametes (eggs and sperm) in the future.
They managed this by placing mouse stem cells on a three-dimensional scaffold. As they observed the cells, they noticed that they started communicating with each other and lined up on their own into a distinctive bullet shape of a mouse embryo.
It should be noted that the researchers did not set out to produce synthetic embryos at all. Their research was actually concerned with studying how stem cells take on specialized roles during embryo development.
Other researchers at the University of Michigan and Rockefeller University plan to conduct similar research in the future using human cells instead. Synthetically created human embryos promise to provide a powerful tool for the embryologists of the future.
Apart from avoiding a dystopian future akin to "A Brave New World", there are some more technical ethical issues that need to be addressed first before racing ahead, however.
For example, what if they become indistinguishable from natural embryos? At what point do these embryos feel pain?
6. Zero-carbon natural gas power plants
As promising as renewable energy is we are likely to be stuck with fossil fuels for some time yet. Natural gas is readily available and relatively cheap so it would make sense to try to limit power-plant emissions, if at all possible.
This is exactly what a new power plant outside of Houston plans to do. In 2018 they began testing their pilot plant that could make natural-gas powerplants a form of clean energy of the future.
The 50-megawatt project, called Net Power, uses natural gas to generate power whilst simultaneously preventing the release of any carbon dioxide. This prototype technology is the product of a collaboration between 8 Rivers Capital, Exelon Generation and CB & I.
Any carbon dioxide that is produced is exposed to high pressure and heat. The resulting supercritical CO2 is then used as the "working fluid" to drive the turbines.
This means that CO2 can be continually recycled and captured when needed. Any captured CO2 can then be sold to third parties for cement, plastic and other carbon-based material manufacturing.
If successful this could mitigate concerns about using fossil fuels for energy generation. But it won't address issues with extraction.
7. Online security goes blockchain
With all the data breaches in the news of late, online security is becoming a real concern for users. There is a real niche in the market for anyone who can provide a means of proving someone's identity without the need to provide sensitive information like you D.O.B.
In 2018 a new blockchain based cryptographic tool, called zero-knowledge proof, began making waves. Whilst it has been in development for some time, the wild cryptocurrency rollercoaster of 2017 and 2018 drew it a lot of media attention.
This new technology has, in part, been validated by practical examples like Zcash's zk-SNARK. zk-Snark stands for "zero-knowledge succinct non-interactive argument of knowledge".
This enables users to be able to conduct transactions completely anonymously. Other cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin, lack this as at present as their transactions are visible to everyone.
Whilst theoretically anonymous this information could be combined with other data to track and potentially identify users. Vitalik Buterin (the creator of Ethereum) has described zk-SNARKs as an “absolutely game-changing technology".
At present zk-Snark is pretty computation-thirsty and slow. But it has promise for the future of cybersecurity for all.