By Atam Dhawan
As our civilization evolves, so do our expectations of technology. Together, they demonstrate how dramatic advances in robots, nanotechnology-enabled sensors and high-powered computing will continue to change and evolve our society. Importantly, many of these technologies, including smart robots, point-of-care devices and machine intelligence, will empower individuals to enjoy their lives more purposefully.
Here is my list of new goalposts for the next decade in three spheres: health care, environmental sustainability and technology-assisted living.
- Point-of-care health monitoring devices: Personal health care devices exist in the form of Fitbits and glucose sticks, but are poised to become substantially more capable and even predictive. By coupling sensors with high-powered computers that filter out noise in the data and provide meaningful analysis of what the patterns signify, these systems will provide near-term and long-term alerts that provide early diagnoses of disorders such as hypertension.
- Neural and rehabilitation implants: Our understanding of neurodegenerative diseases is still in the toddler stage, but we do know that rehabilitation for people who have had a stroke, for example, requires neuromuscular stimulation these implants will provide. Further down the road, implants will function as controllers, potentially connecting the brain with nerves and tissue in a paralyzed arm.
- Stem-cell and gene therapy: With these technologies on the advance, we empower the body to act as a stakeholder in its own healing. To avoid joint surgery, for example, injected stem cells help regenerate tissue, reduce inflammation and treat damaged cartilage and chronic pain. We are beginning to treat people with macular degeneration with gene therapy to produce functioning cells to restore vision. More on the horizon!
- Climate control: Our conventional approach toward the existential problem of climate change is incremental, laborious and expensive – and ineffective at the global scale. We need a paradigm shift over the next 10 years. We can’t just reduce a ton of carbon here, another there. One such shift would be transforming carbon compounds with aerosols and dissipating them as a part of the natural cycle into the larger atmosphere.
- Smarter energy distribution systems: We will create consumer models that align with technology. New technologies in energy generation will lead to innovative ways to store and deliver energy, freeing us from inefficient transmission-line systems. AI will help us use energy efficiently by analyzing our behavior and model when, where and how much energy is needed to suit our individual lifestyles. And by thinking of energy as a commodity, and buying it accordingly, we will also be less likely to waste it.
- Water treatment: As with carbon measures, our approach to water treatment is colossally inadequate. We can’t dig up every leaching pipe or manage inadequate filters that quickly clog. Globally affordable technologies will involve innovative approaches such as electromagnetic irradiation, oxidation, ion-exchange and chemical interactions to destroy contamination or transform it into benign matter.
- Machine intelligence and human augmentation: Still in the early stages, data analytics is improving our powers of prediction, such as assessing the propensity to develop a particular disease. Over the next decade, we must refine these capabilities for decision-making under variable conditions and risks. Technological advances and ethical deliberations about how we deal with knowledge and uncertainty will shape our thinking.
- Robotics-assisted living and autonomous transportation: We will see more robots in the home helping the elderly and disabled to live independently. They will analyze a person’s movements, for example, to help them head off stumbles. They will provide home-to-curb assistance to waiting autonomous cars. We train robots to think like people; increasingly we will co-evolve.
- Flexible, cheaply produced batteries: Trapped in decades-old forms, batteries are not adaptable. They must become malleable, printable and long-lasting to power modern technologies embedded in the environment and in the body, including sensors so sensitive they will detect a cancer’s first mutation. In order to run them safely and efficiently, we are developing new energetic materials by modifying their properties at the nanoscale.
- Quantum computing: We can no longer add transistors onto microchips – they’ve reached a limit. The high-powered computing of the next decade will use quantum physics laws to radically expand processing capability, making computers faster and more secure with new ways to store and analyze data. By working at the atomic level, we can pack a lot of computing power.
Atam Dhawan is the senior vice provost for research at NJIT, a distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering and an inventor. With several issued patents, some commercialized, Dhawan was inducted into the National Academy of Inventors in 2015 for his work on point-of-care technologies in health care. He serves as the chair of the National Institutes of Health’s point-of-care research network.
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