This week’s entry: List of emerging technologies
What it’s about: The future! Even as new technological marvels arrive with each passing year, science is always looking forward to the next breakthrough. Some have long been the purview of science fiction and are only now becoming practical; some are the logical next step in recent inventions; and some, like nuclear fusion or the male birth control pill, have been 10 years away for decades. Taken together, the list lets us glimpse dimly into the near future. Will it be a sparkling utopia where we have slightly bigger phones and slightly smaller tablets, or a shadowy dystopia where we have slightly smaller phones and slightly bigger tablets? Time will tell.
Strangest fact: Science is working on a molecular assembler, a machine that can assemble things on an atomic scale, much the way a ribosome operates within a living cell. The Wikipedia page on the subject has some useful information, but devotes more space to talking about what a molecular assembler isn’t, and whether building one is even possible. As a ribosome exists, it stands to reason science could one day imitate it. But it’s unknown whether it’s possible to build something as versatile as Star Trek’s replicator. The page also covers the “gray goo” theory, a nightmare scenario in which self-replicating nanobots use all of the Earth’s matter to make more of themselves.
Biggest controversy: Most of the technologies on the list name one or more older technologies that may be displaced by the new. While one can make a strong argument that CGI is an already emerged technology, it still made the list, and among its “potentially marginalized technologies,” Wikipedia casually slips “child porn” in between music videos and commercials. And you thought Jar Jar Binks was the worst thing to be associated with CGI.
Thing we were happiest to learn: Whatever we’re eating in the future, it won’t be made of people. There are multiple nascent farming technologies designed to feed a growing population while limiting the unsustainable environmental damage of our current levels of consumption. One such technology is already a reality, if in its infancy. In vitro meat involves creating artificial meat in a lab, with minimal involvement from actual animals. Besides the obvious advantage of not having to kill animals (and not having to devote land, food, and labor to raising those animals), lab-grown meat wouldn’t be exposed to pesticides or bacteria. However, growth hormone may need to be added to lab meat, and there are objections to the unnaturalness of hormones.
For a slightly less unnatural way of separating agriculture and nature, people have long dreamed of vertical farming, in which a skyscraper-sized greenhouse would have plants growing on every level. In theory, we could allow farmland to revert to its natural state, and grow food near the urban populations who eat most of it, instead of having to preserve and transport it from country to city. Vertically farmed plants would also be immune to weather, pests, and drought. At present, the energy costs of keeping the plants adequately lit may outweigh the benefits.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: There just isn’t enough space in this column to talk about everything on the list. Magnetic refrigeration. A working tricorder. The much-hyped invisibility cloak. A computer that connects to your brain. Asteroid mining. All exciting concepts we’ll have to explore later on in our 4,666,222-week series.
Also noteworthy: Scientists are taking Under The Dome very seriously. Two related technologies involve domed-in life: closed ecological systems and domed cities. The former is a small, self-contained ecosystem, à la Biosphere, an environmentally sustainable living space—one that could be a model for a settlement on another planet or in outer space. The latter involves enclosing an already-existing urban area, à la The Simpsons Movie, usually to control weather and air quality. Besides Biosphere, several closed ecological systems have been built, with varying degrees of self-containment, including England’s Eden Project, which grows plants in tropical and Mediterranean climates on the rainy isle, and has served as a concert venue since 2002.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Looking for a magic bullet to meet all of our future energy demands while eliminating the need for fossil fuels? Look no further than the thorium reactor, an alternative to traditional uranium-based nuclear reactors, which cannot be weaponized and won’t melt down. Thorium is so plentiful it’s currently discarded when processing other minerals, and the process creates less radioactive waste than uranium reactors. Although the thorium reactor was first prototyped in the 1960s, the world has been slow to develop a practical thorium reactor, although several countries currently have one in development.
Further down the wormhole: The driving force behind this list of future inventions is, naturally, inventors, whom Wikipedia also lists. One invention that probably didn’t require all that much inspiration was Sir Henry Cole’s contribution, the Christmas card. While you’ll no doubt read much about the spirit of everyone’s favorite holiday that there is a war on, even something as wholesome as Christmas is not free from controversy. We’ll get our fur-lined gloves dirty next week with a look at the holiday’s dark side.