5 Emerging Technologies Making Their Way into the Mainstream

Tomorrow's technology will enhance citizen services while improving how government functions.

by / January/February 2017
David Kidd/Government Technology

Near-future technologies will change what we do, how we do it, even what we are.

What we do: Why build objects, when 4-D printed materials will build themselves?

How we do it: Drag a mouse, point a cursor and click? Tedious. How much simpler to toss off a gesture in the air, to manipulate computer operations with the wave of a hand or the flick of a finger?

What we are: Gene editing already grows bigger corn and longer-lasting tomatoes. Could it grow a longer-lasting you?

Last decade’s sci-fi movie effects become next year’s reality. Technology seems limited by nothing anymore save our own creativity and vision. That’s an opportunity for government leaders, of course. It heralds the arrival of new tools that can help to enhance citizen services while also improving the elemental functions within government.

But there’s a caveat, expressed nicely by American futurist Alex Steffen. “We already have many of the technologies and tools that we need to build a sustainable future,” he said. “What we don’t have is a new way of thinking, and that’s really the hardest part.”

In considering the emerging technologies offered here, government leaders face an inherent challenge. They are tasked not only to help bring these bold ideas to fruition, but also to play a role in the ongoing dialog regarding the best and wisest uses for all this grand potential.

1. Gestural Interface

Sometimes life imitates art. Take for example that scene in the 2002 science fiction film Minority Report, where Tom Cruise uses specially designed gloves to maneuver content around wall-sized computer screens just by waving his hands.

Example of gestural interface. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Intel Free press.

That is totally doable, said Mike Friedel, director of sales for Oblong Industries. The company’s CEO, John Underkoffler, was science adviser to Steven Spielberg for the sci-fi film. While Oblong’s product uses a wand rather than gloves, the premise is essentially the same.

Gestural technology seeks to adapt the user interface, to make it more effective, more flexible, more intuitive. The user may interact with a computer monitor, a white board or a big array of screens. Commands may be conveyed through gloves or a wand or simply by waving a pattern in the air.

This creates a new dynamic for presentations. Instead of having to click-and-drag on a screen, “now you can grab something, resize it and bring it into the picture from some other place, with simple gestures,” said Friedel.

More than mere convenience, the promise of gestural tech lies in its ability to give people freer access to the vast volumes of data that are growing up in the public realm.

“People carry around massive amounts of data on smartphones and tablets and laptops. But can you really solve big problems on a smartphone? No. You need better access to that information,” he said. “Sometimes you need access to multiple streams of information, and the ability to manipulate that data is key. It’s not just about having the information. It’s about being able to combine that data, to cut and paste it and to share it.”

This raises interesting possibilities for government, said Michael Hong, principal at global management consulting firm A.T. Kearney. When combined with virtual or augmented reality, the technology could open the door to smoother, more effective citizen services. Gestural technology could also help government to better serve those with disabilities.

“These are customized, instantaneous, personalized experiences. If someone can move their fingers or arms and you have sensors that pick up on that, now they can interface and engage with government in ways that they haven’t been able to in the past,” he said.

Gestural tech could bring new challenges too, as for instance with the auto industry’s interest in establishing hand gestures as a way to simplify the control interfaces in a car. “So now I will be able to engage with my music system or my climate control without even having to touch anything? For government, there are going to have to be safety precautions considered with that,” Hong said. “There has to be some policy impact.”

2. 4-D Printing and Self-Assembly

The video from MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab is not astonishing at first glance. A string of plastic-looking material about a foot long is immersed in water. In seconds, the object seizes up, contracts and reshapes itself into a new configuration.

It may not look like much, but the implications are profound. The technology here is known generically as 4-D printing, or self-assembly. Unlike 3-D printing, which has become increasingly common, 4-D printing incorporates the added dimension of time, producing objects that possess the ability to evolve their properties under changing conditions.

Researchers say it is akin to taking a simple flat cloth and programming it to curve itself into complex three-dimensional shapes. The transformation might be triggered by water, or by heat, light or electrical current. While it isn’t commercially available, lab tests have shown it is at least technically feasible.

The process requires specialized materials, many of which are currently being investigated. At Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, for example, researchers are working with hydrogel ink, which can cause other objects to change shape when exposed to water or other environmental changes. Such materials could give us “self-evolving structures that transform into a pre-determined shape … which can stretch, fold and bend given environmental stimulus,” according to Nature.

Government may find a range of uses for this capability, once scientists bring it to the point where it can deliver reliably at scale. What if roads that are subject to extreme temperatures could self-assemble at the molecular level to add new levels of resilience? And if so, could the same approach work in bridges and buildings?

“Imagine a sewer or water line that freezes and breaks or corrodes, something that can self-heal or expand based on increased capacity,” said Daniel Castro, vice president at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. “You could build these different shapes on a very small scale and then when you bring it all together, you can build anything. That is the idea in principle.”

Such implementations may still be a ways down the road. While scientists are beginning to understand the physical parameters of self-assembly, they have not got it going on anything like a commercial scale. “The hardest part of any innovation is scaling it so you can use it in production and get costs down in meaningful ways,” Castro said. “I don’t think we are close to that yet.”

3. Gene Editing

Gene editing can sound like the stuff of sci-fi nightmares. Given the ability to selectively snip into the human genome, will we yield to the temptation to try to generate perfect little versions of ourselves? If we can dip into the genetic code, selectively editing for the traits we do or do not value, is that a Frankenstein scenario in the making?

MIT

Probably not. “While scientists are focusing on an array of applications in the areas of health, agriculture and environment, fighting disease and improving health in humans is a top priority for many,” said Dr. Catherine Bliss, assistant professor in the University of California, San Francisco, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

As the name suggests, gene editing is the process whereby scientists “cut and paste strands of DNA — actually inserting, removing and replacing them — to modify an organism’s genetic code,” Bliss said. In a 2015 summit, scientists from around the globe agreed to channel their efforts toward fighting disease.

With gene editing, scientists have been able to switch off the DNA that cause certain diseases. This kind of gene modification has been used to tackle leukemia in blood cells. Another emerging specialty, known as gene therapy, uses certain cells that can attack and kill unhealthy cancer cells. Research has shown that by enhancing what are known as T cells, they can reverse the effects of certain cancers. The T cells act as a drug and have proven effective in treating lymphoma and hemophilia in trials.

Gene editing still is largely a research project, but one with potential practical applications. The U.S. government funds research into medical uses, but how far will other nations go? “Will we create a race of smarter, faster, stronger people? Will some of us live substantially longer than others? Will [genetically modified] humans come to rule over non-GMOs, forcing them into a subservient underclass? These are but a few of the questions we must ask ourselves as we watch this technology develop,” Bliss said.

For state and local governments, the more immediate impact of genetic tinkering will likely come on the economic front. As research support builds for gene editing, government labs, state universities and other public institutions may be uniquely poised to reap a financial benefit. As Bliss noted, San Francisco area authorities have fought hard to keep the region on the cutting edge of R&D investments, and it has proved a lucrative path. “So this is as much an economic matter for state and local governments as one of public health,” she said.

In the longer term, state and local authorities may find themselves grappling with a host of ethical issues. Genetic editing in the food chain already is raising public concerns, and those voices will only amplify as practical implementations related to human health arise. “In the future, state and local governments may find themselves deliberating over policy regarding specific applications,” Bliss said. “There isn’t any policy — federal, state or local — thus far.”

4. 5G Telecommunications

With 4G wireless communications less than 10 years old, it seems odd to be talking about replacing it. But it’s happening with 5G, the emerging standard in voice and data telecommunications. “1G was analog, 2G was digital for higher-quality voice, 3G started to provide higher rates allowing for more data-oriented applications, 4G has allowed for the ongoing growth in mobile applications and video over mobile,” said Bhaskar Krishnamachari, professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and director of the Center for Cyber-Physical Systems and the Internet of Things at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

Image via Shutterstock

The 5G specs aim squarely at IoT, with an eye toward supporting the millions of sensors that scientists expect to see deployed in support of smart homes, smart buildings and smart cities. To do this, 5G will have to support far greater density of connected devices. “5G will also have to provide much lower end-to-end latencies than today’s cellular networks,” Krishnamachari said.

Krishnamachari’s team is exploring the likely interactions of 5G-supported sensors in urban settings, where networks will need to handle data on such diverse phenomena as traffic flows, air quality and noise pollution, disasters, security incidents, and crowds.

“5G will enable much greater capabilities across a wide range of problems,” said Darrell M. West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “It will be faster, and there will also be more intelligent management of the network. You can have millions of sensors but you also need the means to deal with the flood of information that comes out of that. 5G includes much more advanced data analytics and network management.”

Further Toward the Edge

The scholar Warren Bennis said: “The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and
a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching
the equipment.”

The joke is that technology has outstripped even our own comprehension. Perhaps not yet, but it’s easy to feel that way when one looks to the very furthest cutting edge of technology. Here are three examples of the amazing-made-real and what it will mean to us all.

Smartdust: A system of microscopic, interconnected devices rigged up with computing power, sensing equipment, wireless radios and batteries, these clouds of dust particles could act as sensors to carry out simple tasks. The idea dates back several decades, but has moved closer to reality. In a recent paper published in Nature Photonics, scientists describe taking sharp images with a lens 120-millionths of a meter in diameter, the size of a grain of salt. This takes smartdust over a critical threshold, proving it is mechanically feasible to manufacture usable items on such a microscopic scale.

Passive Wi-Fi: Researchers at the University of Washington think they have hit on a solution to power drain in Wi-Fi equipment. Their passive Wi-Fi hardware can drive routers, mobile phones and tablets using only 10-50 microwatts, or 10,000 times less power than today’s best technologies. To achieve its energy savings, passive Wi-Fi reflects signal through a process called “backscatter.” While it won’t fix all our charging woes — screens still suck electricity greedily — it could at least help to trim the battery drain of devices, a boon in terms of both convenience and cost.

Neuromorphic computing: Computers don’t think like we do. Where they conduct their calculations in a linear sequence, the brain is “fully interconnected, with each neuron connected to thousands of others,” Nayef
Al-Rodhan, a scholar of technology and geopolitics, wrote in the journal Global Policy. Neuromorphic computing seeks to apply that same architecture to computers. Resulting systems might be faster and more intuitive; they might learn and remember in new ways. “Some applications will include neuromorphic sensors in smartphones, smart cars and robots, or olfactory detection,” Al-Rodhan wrote. “Neuromorphic technology could impact anything from consumer electronics to warfare.”

While scientists understand the technology driving 5G, actual implementation remains a few years off, with likely rollouts beginning in the 2020 time frame. There are questions of spectrum allocation that need to be resolved, among other issues.

Local government will likely be called upon to play a part in any eventual deployment.

“5G will require many more antennas, and those antennas have to be hooked up to power and the rest of the Internet,” said Doug Brake, telecom policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. “Building out all the 5G equipment and connectivity will have to be a cooperative endeavor with local governments if it is to truly flourish.”

5. Nanotech

One nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. How small is that? Well, a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick. It can be hard to conceptualize on that scale, and yet engineering is happening there.

The United States National Nanotechnology Initiative cites examples, including nanotechnology-enabled catalysts that improve the combustion of methane to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, and nanosensors to detect things like moisture levels and diseases in food crops. Such sensors could help firefighters and soldiers by detecting toxins in the air.

Using sophisticated tools such as the scanning tunneling microscope and the atomic force microscope, nanotech scientists are making inroads on a number of fronts. In health care, for instance, nanoparticles can seek out tumors and deliver drugs. They can push the boundaries of DNA sequencing and perhaps enable tissue regeneration or advanced wound treatment.

In one recent article published on Phys.org, a science news service, scientists describe using a microscopic mechanical decoy to lure and destroy the influenza A virus. In a study on immune-compromised mice, the treatment cut the reduced influenza A mortality from 100 percent to 25 percent over 14 days. “Instead of blocking the virus, we mimicked its target — it’s a completely novel approach,” according to the lead researcher. “It is effective with influenza and we have reason to believe it will function with many other viruses. This could be therapeutic in cases where vaccine is not an option, such as exposure to an unanticipated strain, or with immune-compromised patients.”

The implications of nanoscale technology go far beyond the medical realm. Such products could bolster infrastructure, for example, by enhancing the performance, resiliency and longevity of steel, concrete, asphalt and other materials. Nanodevices could be embedded in the pavement to help drivers keep in their lanes, avoid collisions and adjust travel routes.

Some have raised concerns that nanorobots could be weaponized, deployed as an avenue of biomechanical error. But informed observers say the benefits will far outweigh the potential downsides. “By manipulating matter at the smallest elemental level you can impact its properties, changing its melting point, its permeability, its magnetic or chemical properties,” said A.T. Kearney’s Hong. In doing so, scientists may find new and better ways to attack disease, scrub the air of pollution or convert sunlight into usable energy. “All these can have profound implications.”  

Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.