Five new technologies that will change the world (and win at Jeopardy!)
Five forms of new technology that can change the world: From the computer that beats humans on "Jeopardy!" to cellphone apps for African pick-and-hoe farmers, to satellites that spy on human rights abusers.
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"The mass required to support a human in space is still very large," says David Whalen, a technology historian at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. That mass, transported by decades-old rocket technology, still costs $2,000 to $10,000 per pound to push into orbit. Business executives ultimately found better, if less-celebrated, ways to use that expensive payload space. "You can put a million times more computer into orbit now" compared with 1969, points out Mr. Whalen. That, with improving solar cells and batteries, fueled a boom in unmanned satellites that has shrunk the world in ways that Concorde never could have.Skip to next paragraph
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But the advance with the biggest impact over the past 100 years may be the least glamorous. In a recent online debate, Vaclav Smil, a technology historian at the University of Manitoba in Canada, named the Haber-Bosch process, a chemical reaction almost unheard-of by the public, as the greatest advance of the 20th century. It combines hydrogen and nitrogen to make ammonium. It's used to produce 100 million tons of fertilizer per year – needed for feeding a third of Earth's 7 billion humans.
It was the finitude of farmland and fresh water that made Haber-Bosch matter. It can be argued that it is scarcities in general that set the stage for many world-changing technologies.
"Technologies that shift the fundamental resource base for the commodities of the 21st century are going to be important," agrees Erik Straser, general partner at the technology venture capital firm Mohr Davidow in Menlo Park, Calif. This almost certainly includes technologies that will alleviate bottlenecks in energy – especially oil and gas. It probably extends to ones that ease other emerging shortages, such as lithium and rare earth metals (important in batteries and electric motors).
Identifying all of the technologies destined to change the world would fill the pages of many dissertations. Many of those predictions would still be wrong. But, in the days that follow, the Monitor explores five that have a fighting chance.
GALLERY: FUTURE FOCUS: TECHNOLOGY