Disruptive Technology on the Horizon

A look at innovative technology that’s set to take the world by storm.

by / February 5, 2014

Danish physicist Niels Bohr once reminded the world that “prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” It’s good, tongue-in-cheek wisdom from the 1922 Nobel Prize winner, especially when it comes to technology.

Bohr realized that he had little chance of knowing that a century later, we would be “tweeting” and taking “selfies” with cameras in our phones, using information from a “cloud,” or controlling computers with our voices.

Seeing that far ahead is nearly impossible, but making educated guesses about the next five or 10 years is more realistic. Technology is iterative; the new replaces the old in fits and starts. PCs made big mainframes obsolete, and now smartphones and tablets are doing the same to desktops. Even applications like Facebook that are still thought to be relatively new could eventually be replaced by challengers like Instagram and Snapchat.

Which emerging technologies ultimately will rule the day? Only the future knows, but here are five that we think are promising and intriguing.

Graphene: A Miracle Material?

Graphene, first isolated in a laboratory just a decade ago, sounds like science fiction. It’s a “semi metal” that’s extremely conductive to electricity. Amazingly thin and flexible — a latticework of carbon the width of a single atom — it’s also been called the strongest material in the world. And it’s responsive to all parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.

While it may sound too good to be true, before too long graphene will likely be inside computer chips, optical communications, biochemical sensors, spectrometers and many other products.

Researchers believe graphene could be used as the foundation of a new generation of computer chips that more quickly convert light into electrical current, enabling faster and more energy-efficient processors and rapid movement of vast amounts of data. Graphene also could play a role in new consumer devices, like an all-in-one camera that works not just in visible light but also other parts of the visible spectrum, like infrared and ultraviolet.

Other possibilities are flexible electronics, high-powered batteries, near-instantaneous smartphone chargers and ultra-safe water filters. The possibilities, seemingly, stretch as far as the imagination.

“It is a material that has unique capabilities; you have a metal that is extremely thin with good electrical properties,” said Dirk Englund, an MIT physicist who is developing photodetectors that utilize graphene.

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Photodetectors basically are sensors that detect light or other electromagnetic energy. A pair of night-vision goggles made using graphene could be as light as a pair of conventional sunglasses.

“The bigger vision is that we’re trying to make all the active components in an electro-optic system out of graphene,” Englund said. That includes the receiver, the modulator that encodes information on an optical signal, and the shutter. If successful, such a system could make thermal sensors, chemical spectrometers and other high-tech gadgets so cheap and easy to fabricate that they become part of everyday life.

Still, breakthroughs are needed. It’s tricky to incorporate graphene into devices, although Englund said labs are making progress “growing” graphene on a variety of substrates. In fact, big sheets of the material now are being made.

“It’s amazing that only nine years after the material’s discovery, there already exists many ways to fabricate it in different settings and in large scale,” Englund said.


Reebok ChecklightElectronic Skin: Coming to a Body Near You

New manufacturing techniques are bringing forward a new class of wearable electronics that will give scientists, health-care professionals and even parents a new window into the human body.

Photo: Flexible tape embedded in a skull cap can quantify the actual impacts of a blow to the head. Photo by Reebok.

Designed to be worn on the skin, these flexible exo-sensors could someday gather health diagnostic data, deliver medications and stick directly onto internal organs. It might sound more like fiction than reality, but the age of electronic skin is right around the corner. The first frontier is health data.

John Rogers, a professor at the University of Illinois, leads a research group studying biomedical applications for flexible electronics. The group’s research spun off a new company, MC10, that recently introduced a product with Reebok called Checklight, a flexible tape that threads into the brim of a skull cap for athletes. The tape contains an array of accelerometers and gyroscopes that measures the physics of impacts to the head. The new product is marketed to football players and other participants in contact sports.

“It’s not claiming to measure whether you had a concussion or not; it’s measuring the severity of the hit,” Rogers said.

Flexible electronics have been around for a while, notably in bendable OLED displays that are marketed as the next iteration of flat-panel televisions. But a key advancement in the evolution of electronic skin has been the development of silicon circuits that are stretchable like a rubber band. To do this, researchers had to invent ways to use silicon in ultra-thin geometries that overcome silicon’s natural rigidity and brittleness.

Rogers sees big things ahead in products like a skin patch that automatically takes a baby’s temperature or a wristband that displays the wearer’s heart rate. Futurists even think that these health-care applications could lead to the creation of flexible electronic skin for robots.

“Why stop at accelerometers? You could measure for temperature and hydration on that same platform. We’re moving down a technology pathway to things that are more aggressive and more tattoo-like — ultra-thin film devices on the skin,” Rogers said.

Google appears to be running with the tattoo idea. The tech giant reportedly filed a patent in late 2013 for an “electronic throat tattoo” that could communicate with smartphones and other devices, as well as serve as a lie detector by measuring the wearer’s skin response.

Crossbar Memory: Upping the Ante for Data Storage

Could it be time to say goodbye to flash memory and other tried-and-true data storage mediums? A new technology called “crossbar memory” can house a terabyte of data in an area about the size of a postage stamp — storing data 40 times as densely as the most compact technology available today.

Developed by University of Michigan professor Wei Lu, the term crossbar memory describes where the data is stored: Two layers of electrodes are stacked on each other, with a layer of “silicon switching medium” in between. The electrode rods of the top layer are oriented at 90 degrees to those in the bottom layer, which forms a grid. Pieces of data are stored at each of the junctions where electrodes from the different layers cross.

Lu is co-founder and chief scientist at Crossbar, a spinoff startup in Santa Clara, Calif., attempting to commercialize the technology. Demonstration memory chips of the crossbar technology are in development, and the goal is to have a manufactured product ready for the marketplace in two years, he said.

Dense data storage is one big benefit of the product, but the memory chip also will use significantly less energy. This means if crossbar memory were put in a smartphone, the battery life would be much longer. “It’s not just for mobile, but also for sensors that are everywhere,” Lu said. “It’s costly to change the batteries of sensors on bridges and roads.”

Lu also believes the way we do computing will fundamentally change, and crossbar memory might have a role to play. Today, the CPU and memory are functionally separate, but that might not always be the case. It might be possible to put crossbar memory locally next to the CPU, which Lu said would improve efficiency dramatically and allow for more powerful, more compact computing devices.

3 Disruptive Innovations for the Enterprise

How will the workplace evolve for CIOs over the next few years? Carnegie Mellon professor Ari Lightman directs the university’s CIO Institute, an education center that trains current and up-and-coming IT managers. Lightman identified three trends to watch.

1. Using the ‘SMAC Stack’ to Collaborate

It’s undeniable that the SMAC stack — social, mobile, analytics and cloud — has fundamentally changed the business world. Lightman, though, believes that these tools are still underutilized.

“I think we’re heading to widespread adoption of social tools as a productivity mechanism across the entire organization. These things are going to be as commonplace as when we moved to Internet-based technologies within the enterprise during the late 1990s,” Lightman said.

Enthusiasts are using Yammer, Spredfast and other tools at work in sporadic pockets within organizations, Lightman said, but adoption is set to rise as the world becomes more comfortable with using one device that has both business and personal information on it for the sake of convenience.

To propel growth in this space, Lightman said agencies and businesses must figure out how to incentivize using the SMAC stack as primary tools, not just as optional add-ons that augment existing tools like email.

2. Measuring Employee Productivity with Sensors

Forcing employees to wear an electronic device that tracks their every movement at work sounds like something out of a sci-fi horror story. But that could be the wave of the future as enterprises hope to improve service and efficiency beyond what’s possible today.

“I think people are going to become sensor networks in the sense that companies are going to want to get information on how employees are being productive. It sounds like Big Brother, but companies (and government agencies) will provide incentives to employees to understand and manage it,” Lightman said.

Big companies like Bank of America have experimented with a high-tech name tag from Sociometric Solutions that measures how much a person talks and listens; tracks how much he or she sits, stands and walks; and records his or her physical location.

Lightman said employees could be agreeable to wearing such a technology if the data that’s collected remains anonymous and the research leads to tangible improvements in their work lives. With further advances in the geolocation features contained in mobile devices, it could be a simple as using a smartphone app.

3. Mapping Cultural Networks

Who holds the power and influence at work? The answer could be revealed in a “cultural map” that measures social networks within an organization. Researchers examining organizational dynamics and behavior are now visually drawing the strength of connections between people in the workplace.

Each person on the map is a node; the map shows who has daily, weekly or monthly communication with one another, among many other statistical measures. With the data, managers can look at who is a central hub of activity and who is being left on an island.

“Oftentimes the power is not actually where you think it is,” Lightman said.

Cultural maps even could be valuable when identifying which people in an enterprise should be early adopters of a new technology. (Hint: It’s the influential people.)

Crossbar memory is emerging at a time when makers of flash memory are having a hard time squeezing more capacity into smaller and smaller spaces. Moore’s Law postulates that computer processing speeds, transistors, memory capacity and other factors tied to computing performance will continue to improve exponentially as time goes on — but that might not be realistic much longer.

“Basically we have been making transistors smaller and smaller. But it’s getting so small that we are running into fundamental limits,” Lu said.

Smartphone Co-Processors: Nonstop Data Collection

Conserving a smartphone’s battery is a uniquely modern game of cat and mouse. Whether you’re driving in an unfamiliar town or searching for a nearby coffee shop, many of us have felt the anxiety of having a low phone battery. Do you turn the phone off completely or risk continuing to use the phone’s geolocation and mapping, knowing full well that it’s a battery killer?

That probably won’t be as big a worry in new smartphone models, thanks to a new generation of computer chips that offloads the phone’s accelerometer, gyroscope and other motion-sensing gadgetry onto a separate “co-processor,” which conserves the phone’s battery.

Leading the way is the M7 motion-sensing chip in the iPhone 5s. Even when the phone is asleep, the chip can continue collecting data from the motion-tracking sensors.

“If your battery dies, no one’s going to use your app, simple as that. What these co-processors will do is not drain your battery. You have a separate system that is doing some simple computation, and if something interesting happens, the main processor wakes up. You can be a lot more clever now about how you design apps,” said Tanzeem Choudhury, an associate professor at Cornell University who directs a research group studying mobile health systems and activity recognition.

These new data chips could make fitness apps and other motion-tracking programs even more effective, Choudhury said. What’s been missing is that these apps can’t be left on 24/7 because they kill the battery. But new apps supporting M7 can measure always-on tasks like running or walking step counts in a pedometer. Other apps will measure when, where and how the user moved.

Besides improving health and exercise data, the M7 chip and other phone co-processors of the future could bring a new era of gesture controls. Imagine being able to answer a phone call by swiping your fingers in the air or fetching Siri by raising your hand. A gesture even could replace the passwords that now lock phones.

Gesture technology isn’t 100 percent accurate yet, but it’s improving. And some people might be annoyed that they have to make a motion instead of entering a numeric password. Others might be concerned that new computer chips like M7 will collect data about them even when the phone’s in sleep mode. But overall the potential benefits are immense.

“People will use it if it improves their quality of life,” Choudhury said.

Laser Networks: Closing the Broadband Gap

The United States is trailing many other industrialized nations in broadband speeds and last-mile connectivity, particularly in rural areas. Wiring the country with fiber might simply cost too much.

At the same time, the nation is trying to figure out how to deal with the looming wireless “spectrum crunch” driven by the booming traffic from smartphones and other mobile devices. Maybe satellite and terrestrial lasers will be the answer on both fronts. Yes, that’s right. Lasers!

Universities and corporate campuses have used optical communication — lasers — for a while in high-speed data links over short distances. The military first developed the technology, which most often utilizes infrared wavelengths near visible light on a part of the spectrum that isn’t regulated by the government.

“The technology right now is migrating into an arena where the cost is going down, systems are getting smaller and more intelligent tracking technologies for the beam are coming,” said Heinz Willebrand, president and CEO of LightPointe, a provider of short-range wireless bridge technology.

Optical communication has several advantages that could mesh well with consumers’ increasing appetite for more bandwidth. There is more capacity in the unregulated optical spectrum than in the spectrum wireless carriers are subject to under the FCC, Willebrand said. Lasers also can bring up to 1 terabit speeds, which would make the gigabit networks that cities are installing obsolete. Optical communications also are secure, Willebrand said, because the beam is narrow, only a few feet wide when propagated half a mile.

“To get information from the beam, you virtually have to get into the beam,” he said.

Like any technology, there are challenges. The lasers don’t work well in fog, and they must be aimed precisely when traveling long distances. Even between buildings, the laser must be adjusted since the buildings move imperceptibly during different times of the day.

Willebrand foresees a future in which municipal wireless mesh networks bring fiber connectivity to a neighborhood’s curb, and then nodes of lasers provide last-mile connectivity to homes. Hybrid fiber/optical networks also are possible, he said.

Lasers beamed from satellites could someday provide the connectivity that’s lacking in many rural communities today. In October, NASA successfully demonstrated a download rate of 622 megabits per second with a laser shot from the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico to the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer satellite orbiting the moon.

Matt Williams Contributing Writer

Matt Williams was previously the news editor of Govtech.com, and is now a contributor to Government Technology and Public CIO magazines. He also previously served as the managing editor of TechWire, a sister publication to Government Technology.2