Imagining the Future Of Technology

2 min read

In our latest survey of IEEE Fellows [”Bursting Tech Bubbles Before They Balloon”], conducted in conjunction with The Institute for the Future, in Palo Alto, Calif., some 700 of the world’s leading technological minds took an optimistic but clear-eyed look at which technologies will—and won’t—be making our lives bigger and better over the next 20 or so years.

Most of them think that massively ­parallel-processing computers will be used in mainstream applications and that personal gigabit Internet access will be available in developed countries. Virtually all see RFID becoming ­ubiquitous and software-defined radio being commonly integrated into consumer electronics. Our Fellows predict a daily life saturated with information technology. Kevin Kelly, a cofounder of Wired magazine, calls this ­”zillionics”—rivers of sensory data flowing day and night from zillions of sources.

And while some technologies of the future, like quantum computing, nanotechnology, and autonomous vehicles, may take longer than expected to arrive, others may be closer than imagined. Take, for example, neuroprosthetic devices. Brain chips that endow their wearers with superhuman ­powers have long been a mainstay of science fiction. But now ”brain-machine interfaces” are making a real-world splash in the field of rehabilitative medicine.

A recent issue of Nature focused on the latest developments in these devices, including an update on a young paralyzed man, Matt Nagle, who was fitted with a sensor chip designed to translate the electrical impulses from his thoughts into commands to a computer that controlled devices, such as an artificial limb. The upshot of the report is that the experiment was a success. The patient was able to maneuver a screen cursor and some robotic devices—with his mind alone.

The article in question, ”Neuronal Ensemble Control of Prosthetic Devices by a Human with Tetraplegia,” by a team from Brown University, in Providence, R.I., and several U.S. hospitals, describes the use of neuromotor prostheses ”to replace or restore lost motor functions in paralyzed humans by routing movement-related signals from the brain, around damaged parts of the nervous system, to external effectors.”

And then there is HP’s announcement of a new wireless data chip smaller than a grain of rice that will take the self-­identifying capabilities of RFID chips to the next level. Developed by the Memory Spot research team at HP Labs, the new microchip is a CMOS device that is 2 to 4 millimeters square, with an antenna built onto its silicon. Its immense writable memory and ­lightning-fast data access let it tackle applications that RFID chips can’t begin to manage.

HP claims that the Memory Spot chip can be used for everything from storing medical records on a patient’s wristband to helping keep identity cards and passports secure. It transfers data at 10 megabits per second, and early prototypes store as much as half a megabyte of data. The minute size of the Memory Spot means it can be used on almost anything, in the form of self-adhesive dots.

Our survey authors, Marina Gorbis and David Pescovitz, quote computing wizard Alan Kay’s famous adage, ”The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” And IEEE Fellows, an elite group of men and women representing the very best of their professions, certainly have a big hand in that. Their forecast is grounded in state-of-the-art engineering. Do you think they got it right? Let us know. Drop us a line at or visit our Web site at .

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