Ideas to change the world — long-term potential or simply gimmicks?
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
These are some of the ideas and technologies that Financial Times writers have proposed, in the categories of education, health, population, energy and nature, as having the potential to change the world. Which of these do you think are just a flash in the pan and which do you think are worth watching?
Imagine if you could read people’s minds. In the film What Women Want Mel Gibson develops this skill after an electric shock, when a hairdryer slips into a bath tub. Mary Lou Jepsen, formerly of Facebook’s Oculus and Google X, is trying to deliver mind-reading the scientific way with her new start-up Openwater.
Openwater has already had success in shrinking MRI scanners down to the size of a wearable device, which it hopes will help people to see inside brains and bodies in great detail. In the short term, these could be used to diagnose conditions from cancers to brain disease quickly and comparatively cheaply. It could also one day enable surgery without a knife — irradiating tumours with focused light rather than cutting them out.
In the longer term, developers hope the technology could be used to read your thoughts, which Ms Jepsen believes could help people to share knowledge and ideas like never before.
Hannah Kuchler, San Francisco correspondent
When I put on the HoloLens headset at the Royal Society’s summer science exhibition, I could finally grasp the real promise of augmented reality.
Unlike my early experience of VR headsets, I felt neither nauseous, claustrophobic, nor unsure of the whole point of the exercise.
The “world’s first fully self-contained holographic computer”, developed by Microsoft at its facilities in Cambridge, the British university town and leading R&D hub, enables you to see and manipulate holograms against the backdrop of surrounding reality. The two perspectives blend.
Microsoft says that Nasa has used the HoloLens to bring the surface of Mars into its lab. It has also served to teach anatomy at a medical school through interactive 3D models of the human body.
To quote one reviewer on the TechRadar website, it is like “wearing a PC on your face”. Or as Microsoft puts it, “the next evolution in computing” offers business, designers, scientists, engineers and educators “unique value in the way the HoloLens brings information and products to life”.
Leyla Boulton, editor of Special Reports
Sharing health data
The big data revolution and patients’ control over their own medical information has only just begun. It will prove ever more important in research, prevention, diagnosis and treatment for diseases in the years ahead.
While consumer advocates rightly raise concerns over unauthorised commercial exploitation and ethical abuses of access to medical information, patients have a still stronger case to see their data shared. This permits more efficient and rapid understanding among their clinicians and allows them to be part of more systematic efforts, such as PatientsLikeMe, a patient network and research platform, to understand the effects of different drugs and treatments over time.
In the future, integration with genetic data and lifestyle habits including diet, smoking and exercise, offers huge scope to better understand, track, alert and nudge individuals to lead healthier lifestyles. It will also help scientists study the progression of diseases and how to tackle them better.
Andrew Jack, head of curated content
A computer chip that can compose music might at first seem like a gimmick, but the self-learning neuromorphic chip, unveiled in May, has the potential to revolutionise computing. Developed by Imec, the Belgian nano-electronics research hub, the chip works like a human brain, sending information as bursts of electric current, much as the brain fires currents between neurons. It is more energy efficient than traditional computer chips and it means that the chip itself can have artificial intelligence — the ability to learn — built into it. In this case, the chip was able to compose melodies after analysing old Belgian and French flute minuets.
The chip’s developers are not planning to enter the classical music charts, however. They envision a use for the self-learning chips in healthcare, for example in heart-rate monitors that could learn the varying ECG signals of individuals and more precisely identify heart abnormalities. Several companies, including IBM, are developing neuromorphic chips.
Maija Palmer, digital and communities editor, Special Reports
Female-led family planning
While economic growth and social development historically have driven down birth rates, this “demographic transition” in some parts of the world, notably in west Africa, has been slow and the number of children per mother has even risen. That causes poverty, environmental pressure and ill health through teenage pregnancies and inadequate spacing of births.
Cheap, self-injectable methods, which are slow-release and long-lasting (over three months), such as Sayana Press, developed by the non-profit group PATH and produced by Pfizer, give back more control to women.
The solutions are not just technical and scientific: the human aspects of identifying, distributing and winning support for family planning devices are essential. One big opportunity is to offer contraceptives more actively when women are most receptive to the idea, such as when they bring in their newborn children for vaccination. Another is to ensure bulk purchases, which make them available and drive down prices to affordable levels.
Ultimately, such devices will have their greatest impact as part of more imaginative programmes that promote equality and give women the power over decision making.
Andrew Jack, head of curated content
ENERGY AND RESOURCES
Thorium-based nuclear power
Thorium-based nuclear power is touted by its proponents as offering the advantages of traditional reactors — reliable, efficient and low-carbon electricity generation — without the considerable downsides associated with radioactive waste and nuclear proliferation.
Thorium is a moderately radioactive chemical element that can be used as a “fuel salt” in molten salt reactors to produce energy. It produces less dangerous waste than conventional nuclear power stations and cannot be used to make weapons.
The historic links between military and civilian nuclear technology helped to steer the industry towards the use of uranium and plutonium as fuel. However, the crisis of confidence in nuclear power since the Fukushima meltdown in Japan in 2011 has revived interest in Thorium as a safer way to meet the world’s growing energy needs while reducing carbon emissions.
After the development of the first experimental molten salt reactors in the 1960s, the first new thorium-based reactor for 40 years was recently fired up in the Netherlands and China is also investing in the technology.
Andrew Ward, energy editor
Imagine growing a drone in a lab, complete with complex electronic systems and ready to fly straight from a huge Petri dish. The concept might sound far-fetched but scientists from the University of Glasgow and engineers from BAE Systems last year revealed they are collaborating on projects to manufacture inorganic materials and products through pioneering chemical processes.
The UK defence company suggested that by the end of the century, such complex autonomous aircraft could be manufactured on the front line “to support military operations where a multitude of small UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicle] with a combination of technologies serving a specific purpose might be needed quickly”. Chemistry professor Lee Cronin, who is developing the field’s 3D printing equivalent, the “chemputer”, admits that it will be a challenge to manufacture aircraft, but believes that it will not be long before complex objects will be assembled molecule by molecule.
Peggy Hollinger, industry editor
Molecular super sponges
Metal organic frameworks, or MOFs, are super-absorbent materials — crystalline powders full of nano-scale holes that can be designed to soak up almost any gas. They have a vast range of potential applications, in fields from agriculture and medicine to energy and chemical production.
One important use of MOFs may be to capture emissions of carbon dioxide, the most important greenhouse gas responsible for global warming. MOFs are in the early stages of commercialisation.
Clive Cookson, science editor