Technologies that Could Change the World, Part 2

Stephen DeAngelis

November 09, 2012

In Part 1 of this 2-part series, I discussed the first five of nine technologies that Bryan Nelson identifies as technologies he believes are going to change the world. [“9 Future Technologies that Will Change the World,” ecorazzi, 15 October 2012] The five technologies discussed in Part 1 were: atmospheric energy; nanotechnology; augmented reality; solar fuel; and engineered stem cells. In this post, we’ll examine what Nelson says about: wireless energy transfer; space-based solar energy; quantum teleportation; and artificial intelligence. Here’s what Nelson writes about the first wireless energy transfer.

Wireless Energy Transfer

“Wireless devices are pretty ubiquitous today. Is anything connected by a wire anymore? Well, technically: while we can beam information around wirelessly, our electrical devices must still, by and large, receive their power from hardwired connections. But imagine being able to beam energy from a power source directly into a device without the need for a wire, much like how your laptop can pick up a wireless internet connection. The technology for wireless energy transfer already exists, but it has yet to be perfected. There still exists a problem of efficiency; too much energy is lost when it is beamed. As the technology develops, however, we might imagine a world where nothing needs to be plugged in anymore. Perhaps even more incredible, the technology could revolutionize space exploration. Not only could power be beamed to satellites, space stations, and space ships from Earth, but power collected in space could be sent back to Earth too.”

The efficiency problem mentioned by Nelson is non-trivial. Peter Clarke reports that wireless energy transfer “efficiency is highly spatially dependent.” [“Power struggle plagues wireless charging,” EE Times India, 1 November 2012] The following video makes that point quite well.


Concerning his next technology — space-based solar energy — Nelson writes:

Space-based Solar Energy

“The vast majority of the energy contained on Earth originates from the Sun. Our ability to harness that power depends on how efficiently we can harvest it. Solar technology is becoming ever-better at capturing the Sun’s energy, but all Earth-based solar collectors are limited because the atmosphere deflects a great deal of the Sun’s energy. But what if we could assemble vast arrays of solar panels in space? Not only could we arrange them to always be pointing at the Sun, but there would be no atmosphere to get in the way of all that energy. Also, it wouldn’t require covering any of the Earth’s surface with solar panels. That’s the idea behind space-based solar. Of course, the technology is limited by our ability to assemble and maintain such vast arrays in space. There is also the problem of energy transfer, which is pending the development of wireless energy transfer (mentioned on this list already). Nevertheless, it’s possible that such technology could one day meet all of our energy needs.

Frankly, this technology sounds more like science fiction than a technology that could change the world. Sometimes “the possible” is not necessarily “the practical.” Nevertheless, the following video of Peter Sage’s TEDx talk claims that it is about to become a reality.

If Sage is correct, the benefits of space-based solar are obvious. Affordability remains an issue. Concerning his next technology — quantum teleportation — might be in the same category; but, only if you are imagining a “Beam me up, Scotty” teleportation system. Nelson writes:

Quantum Teleportation

“Teleportation isn’t just the stuff of science fiction. It’s real, and it’s already here. Or at least, quantum teleportation is here: which is the instantaneous transfer of a quantum state from one location to another. The bizarre phenomenon that makes this possible is called entanglement, a mysterious link known to exist between certain particles even though they are separated by space. The key to the technology is controlling this phenomenon. It’s no easy task, but Chinese researchers recently teleported a photon’s state nearly 100 kilometers. Once perfected, the technology will revolutionize computing and communication speeds. Obviously, there’s nothing faster than instant communication. It’s almost anti-intuitive to imagine.”

Adam Mann reports, “There is an international quantum teleportation space race heating up.” [“The Race to Bring Quantum Teleportation to Your World,” Wired Science, 3 October 2012] He explains:

“Around the world, countries are investing time and millions of dollars into the technology, which uses satellites to beam bits of quantum information down from the sky and could profoundly change worldwide communication. This is not a maybe-sort-of-one-day quantum technology. Quantum teleportation has been proven experimentally many times over and researchers are now eyeing the heavens as their next big leap forward. Most of what remains are the nuts and bolts engineering challenges (and some more money) before it becomes a thing of the present.”

Physics at the quantum level is bizarre indeed; but Mann goes on to provide a good explanation of how it works. Should the technology be perfected, instant communication would certainly bring a new level of visibility to the supply chain. Concerning his final technology — artificial intelligence — Nelson writes:

Artificial Intelligence

“The first image you probably conjure up when you think of artificial intelligence is the Terminator, or maybe HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s true that the development of artificial intelligence raises some big philosophical and ethical questions, but there’s little doubt that the technology is inevitable. The processing power of computers continues to grow at an astounding rate. As a result, we’re able to analyze data using increasingly complex computer models, and solve problems in ever-more ingenious ways. So far, we’ve yet to create a machine with artificial consciousness, or self-awareness. But this, too, is likely inevitable. At least one engineer believes that artificial consciousness will emerge by 2045. It’s unlikely that artificial consciousness will emerge from a computer console, or a disembodied app. Rather, true machine consciousness will likely come out of the field of robotics. Of course, this could mean there will finally be a robot maid for every household in America. Or it’ll mean the invention of the Terminator. I guess we’ll just have to find out.”

A number of pundits don’t agree with Nelson that “true machine consciousness” is “inevitable.” (See my post entitled Philosophy and Artificial General Intelligence). There are two kinds of artificial intelligence that need to be clarified. The kind that Nelson is discussing is generally referred to Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). The more widely-used term “artificial intelligence” generally refers to so-called “weak AI” that allows computers to use basic algorithmic instructions to learn new things on their own. Enterra Solutions uses this latter type of AI in many of its supply chain and cognitive analytical solutions. Even if AGI is not attained, other AI applications will nonetheless have a significant impact on the future.

I found Nelson’s list both informative and entertaining. He might have overstressed energy technologies; but, with energy prices on the top of every politician’s list of challenges, his selections are understandable.