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A discussion of emerging technologies, mostly computer-related. The free portion lists specific technologies and explains the genesis of this book inmy Emerging Technologies course.

Emerging Technologies

by Thomas A. Easton

Emerging Technologies Introduction


Thomas A. Easton
Professor of Science
Thomas College
Waterville, ME 04901
easton@thomas.edu, profeaston@adelphia.net


Introduction: What is an Emerging Technology
Chapter 1: The PDA as Emerging Tech
Chapter 2: Power Supplies
Chapter 3: Robots
Chapter 4: Autonomous Vehicles
Chapter 5: LED Lighting
Chapter 6: Nanotechnology
Chapter 7: Surveillance
Chapter 8: RFID
Chapter 9: 3D Printing
Chapter 10: Augmented Reality
Chapter 11: Mind Plus Machine
Chapter 12: VOIP--Internet Calling
Chapter 13: E-Voting
Chapter 14: Translation
Chapter 15: The War Against Spam


Emerging Technologies emerges from my computer science course of the same title at Thomas College in Waterville, Maine. It's a popular course, for students are very interested in all the new technogizmos that hit the market every year. It's also an important course, for we live in a very technological age. Technology drives the economy and destroys and creates both industries and fortunes. It also both destroys and creates jobs, which may make technological change of special interest to college students. They have an understandable interest in knowing what jobs will be waiting for them in a year or two, how industries will change over the next decade or so, and even what they might watch with an eye to future investment potential.

Is a new technogizmo the same as a new technology? Of course not, but students (and others) may think so, for marketers are prone to making that claim, perhaps on the grounds that a product is easier to understand than an underlying and enabling technology. One purpose of this book and the course behind it is to help students understand the difference. Its method is to survey a number of current examples of emerging technologies (sometimes in the form of products, admittedly!), consider the background and context, encourage research beyond the readings, and look at the future prognosis.

The list of current examples changes rapidly. This year's list is embodied in this book--search technology, spam-fighting, PDAs, autonomous vehicles, e-voting, VOIP, computer translation, augmented reality, LEDs, nanotechnology, surveillance technology, RFIDs, power supplies, 3D printing, and brain-machine interfaces. Some of these topics--perhaps even most--will remain of interest from year to year. But in a year's time, some will have dropped out of the spotlight, even though they may still be emerging. Others will have surfaced. A few may have died or fully emerged.

The lability of the course's content means that it is hard to find a textbook. I use handouts, many from Technology Review, which has long done an excellent job of covering emerging technologies of many kinds. Since I teach a version of the course online, I have had to write small essays to serve as lectures. The essays comprise this book, which I fondly hope will serve you as well as it does me.

Thomas A. Easton
Professor of Science
Thomas College
Waterville Maine
February 2006


One might think that an emerging technology is just a brand-new technology. Someone has just emerged from a lab with a new invention. The next step is to turn it into a product, start to sell it, and garner great wealth. Surely that must have been the dream of Charles Babbage, who in 1821 invented the first genuine computer, the "Difference Engine."

But it is hardly that simple. A great many inventions never reach the product stage; they may, like Babbage's machine, require the invention of additional technologies (such as electronics) before they can become practical. In addition, many have been turned into products that failed to sell (or failed to sell well) or to continue to sell. Who now remembers eight-track audio tape? (Click here for the eight-track story.) The failures to succeed--or to emerge--can happen for many reasons. Among those reasons are:

  • The public doesn't think the product is as nifty as the inventor does.
  • A competing product has features the public prefers.
  • The public likes the new product but not enough to pay the price or to discard what they are used to.
  • The public likes it, but it has awkward features or is not quite reliable enough.
  • A still newer technology displaces the product before it can become established.
  • The inventor does not have sufficient funds for marketing, or for fighting legal battles.
  • Additional technologies are needed to make the product more functional or appealing.
  • The technology is fine, but the right product has not yet been found.
The Segway Human Transporter is a product built on the underlying technology of computer-controlled gyroscopic stabilization. Will it succeed or emerge? As a product, it's nifty enough, but it has problems, for legal authorities are banning it from both roadways and sidewalks! But the underlying technology is also being used for a stair-climbing wheelchair, and Bombardier is thinking about a one-wheeled motorcycle called the Embrio. So even if the Segway itself does not emerge, the technology may.

What kinds of technologies are we going to look at in this course? Some are fresh from the lab. Some have been around for awhile, perhaps waiting for the development of other "enabling" technologies. Most have appeared on one or more of the several lists of up-and-coming technologies that appear each year.

Some of those lists are shorter than others. In May 2003, David Pescovitz wrote "Six Technologies that Will Change the World" for Business 2.0. One of his six, "God's Ink-Jet," is essentially an ink-jet printer that uses instead of ink a mix of cells, growth factors, and gel and can lay down multiple layers to generate a three-dimensional organ-type structure. If it works as described, it could be very valuable in medicine. But it is not entirely new, for it is a variation on existing devices, 3D printers, used for "rapid prototyping." These devices are already successful in industrial settings. They are too expensive for home use, but prices are dropping. Once they are cheap enough, new uses will be developed, which invites us to imagine what we might do with one if we had one at home. 3D printers will be considered later in this book.

Pescovitz also mentions "Robots you can relate to," meaning robots with facial expressions such as Kismet, faster airplanes, tiny fuel cells for PDAs and cell phones, electronic paper for thin, flexible computer displays, and swarms of tiny sensors for tracking both goods and people. Of these, only the airplanes will not be discussed later in this book.

A second list comes out every year from Technology Review. The latest is "10 Emerging Technologies" (May 2005):

  • Airborne networks
  • Universal memory
  • Quantum wires
  • Bacterial factories
  • Silicon photonics
  • Environmatics
  • Metabolomics
  • Cell-phone viruses
  • Magnetic-Resonance Force Microscopy
  • Biomechatronics
Where the Pescovitz list is product-oriented, this one is less specific, focusing on the technologies that make products possible. There is, of course, some overlap; biomechatronics is closely related to robotics, and environmatics to sensor swarms. We will not get into the biological areas.

Intriguingly, neither list includes a technology that most of us use every day and that might be considered very well established. As discussed by Wade Roush in "Search Beyond Google" (Technology Review, March 2004), this is the technology of the computer search engine, which lies behind Google, Yahoo Search, and other search "products." The basic idea is fairly simple: A list of everything to be found on the Internet, suitably sorted and indexed. Someone types "search technology" into the Google box, and they promptly get a list of web sites that contain both the words, "search" and "technology," including Google's own PigeonRank spoof of its PageRank technology. However, the amount of material available on the Internet grows with such extraordinary speed that several generations of search technology have already proven inadequate to the task and been replaced. The current reigning technology is Google's PageRank, but it does fail to find everything one might want in a search, and it very often fails to return the most desirable results first. Many researchers--including Google's own--are therefore struggling to develop new methods. See Charles Ferguson's "Google and the Coming Search Wars, Revisited," Technology Review, April 2005, and Javed Mostafa's "Seeking Better Web Searches," Scientific American, February 2005.

It may be impossible to develop a technology that can find everything out there, for there is just too much. The new methods differ chiefly in how they prioritize what they find (how often key words appear on a page, how many other pages link to a page, which other pages link to a page) or arrange the results on the screen (lists or clusters) or let users pose questions (key words or sentences).

Google is not only trying to improve search technology to stay on top of the heap. In terms of our list of why technologies fail to emerge, it is addressing the second item by adding features: It is looking for new kinds of information to search, as Wade Roush's "The Infinite Library," Technology Review, May 2005, explains. Google has announced plans to scan millions of library books and make their contents available for searching and printing and has already signed partnerships with several major university libraries (Oxford, Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Michigan) and the New York Public Library. The potential benefits are huge, for the project promises to make available to all materials which have in the past required visits to distant repositories. But there are problems as well, including potential copyright infringement, finding a way to make the process pay, and the process's impact on the nature of libraries.

Note that Google (and others) are also developing personal search engines that can find items squirreled away on today's huge hard drives and in email archives. You can try out Google's Desktop Search here. And Yahoo's. Others are available or coming from Copernic, Microsoft, Ask Jeeves, and more.

The following list will take you to several of today's competing search engines. Will Google's PageRank stay on top? Or will a new technology emerge to replace it? When you examine the results so far, what do you think? Is there an obvious choice? Or is something more needed?

Now: Where is it all going? Everything mentioned above--in fact, everything covered in this course--is pretty short-term stuff. But technology does not stand still. Every time I teach this course, new technolgies demand to be covered. And over the years they add up to a lot more than a better search engine or cell phone.

Many people welcome progress, for it brings exciting new products, toys, and abilities. But many people worry about progress too. It destroys jobs, puts companies and industries out of business, threatens morality, and even threatens to destroy "human nature." This is the topic of Joel Garreau's Radical Evolution (Doubleday, 2005) . He notes that nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, robotics, brain chips that let people control prosthetic limbs and machinery, mental uploads, memory boosters, life extension, genetic engineering, and more off to change human life drastically. He calls genetic, robotic, information and nano technologies the GRIN technologies and says that they are about to enable engineered humans with such startlingly new capabilities that they may no longer be "human" in any traditional sense. The consequences may be quite utopian or quite catastrophic; Bill Joy has written that robotics, nanotechnology, and genetic engineering threaten to make humanity extinct and that research into these areas should therefore be cut short immediately.

People fear potential catastrophes. But the idea of transcending human nature really gives them the willies. The idea that humans might turn themselves into something that isn't really human anymore is frightening. So is the idea of people becoming somehow unnatural, which has driven protests against vaccines, antibiotics, organ transplants, and assisted reproduction, among other technological developments that go against the traditional "natural order." It provides the rhetoric being used against the idea of changing the body with such things as computer implants and genetic engineering. Yet, says Garreau, human nature is not just a matter of doing things the same way we always have. It is human nature to search for meaning, to better ourselves, to be creative, and to devise rituals to validate our actions. Given this, whatever we do with the GRIN (and other) technologies is human nature.

We might also note that in the search for whatever it is that makes humans uniquely human in a world full of our animal cousins, people have suggested communication, speech, tool-using, laughter, and several other things, all of which soon turned out to have parallels in animal behavior. The differences are of degree, not kind. But there is one thing we do that other animals don't: if we have a tool, a language, a religion, a costume, a recipe, a political system, we tinker with it. We change it. We do not leave it alone. Thus, if we wind up changing human nature, well, that's human nature.

Questions for discussion:

  1. Which of the reasons why inventions may not reach the product stage apply to Charles Babbage's difference engine? Eight-track audio tape?
  2. Which of the reasons why inventions may not reach the product stage apply to the concern that technological advances threaten to change human nature?
  3. How far can we go in adding features to search engines? Later in the course, we will discuss connecting brains to computers. Would you like a search engine for the contents of your own skull? Or are you happy with the one you have?


Copyright © by Thomas A. Easton . All rights reserved unless specified otherwise above.

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