Technologies that will Change the World — Maybe (Part 2)

Stephen DeAngelis

May 11, 2011

Yesterday, in Part 1 of this two-part series, I begin discussing five technologies that Douglas Fox believes will be “changing the world now, or well positioned to do so in the future.” [“Five new technologies that will change the world (and win at Jeopardy!),” The Christian Science Monitor, 12 April 2011] He says the “litmus test” for these technologies is their ability “to stretch the dollar – or yen, or euro – into accomplishing new things.” In the last post, I covered the first two technologies: energy-saving computer chips and satellite monitoring. The next technology discussed by Fox is one that I’ve written about before — cellphones (see, for example, my post entitled Mobile Phones and Development).

Mobile Money and Biometrics

Fox claims, “In low-tech villages, biometrics and mobile money can level market spikes and allow a way for people to bypass the grid and still eat.” [“Villages leapfrog the grid with biometrics and mobile money,” Christian Science Monitor, 14 April 2011] Bypassing the grid in the age of information and globalization might not sound like a very good idea. Fox, however, defines “the grid” as industrial age fixed infrastructures such as paved roads, telephone landlines, and electricity distribution systems. For most of us, the grid includes the Internet, the World Wide Web, satellite systems, and mobile phone networks. The information age is all about connectivity and mobile telephony is rapidly becoming the heart of connectivity. Fox explains his position this way:

“The rise of cellphone technology reflects a larger dynamic. Poor countries that lack expensive infrastructures like telephone lines, power grids, paved roads, and national ID systems are bypassing these massive investments and ‘leapfrogging’ directly to lower-cost, decentralized technologies: cellphones instead of landlines. Satellite TV instead of local transmissions. Diesel generators or solar panels instead of grid electricity, and so on. In some cases, developing countries are adopting technologies that have yet to catch on in industrialized nations – such as biometrics, or digital fingerprinting. A new form of cellphone commerce, called mobile money, is allowing rural people without access to banks to transfer money across long distances, pay electronically for supplies, or even save money through a process similar to using a prepaid ATM card. The first step toward this happened in 2005, when the Kenyan cellphone provider Safaricom began allowing people to transfer phone time that they had purchased to other customers. This transferable phone time soon became a de facto currency: People actually transferred phone time to one another to pay their debts and bills; those who received phone time from others could then convert it back to cash by selling it to informal brokers.”

Although I agree with Fox that leapfrogging old technologies is a good strategy for developing countries, I disagree that such leapfrogging means that people are bypassing the grid. They are simply connecting to it in a different, more flexible way. Eventually, developing countries are going to have to develop sufficient infrastructure to support industries if they want to enjoy the benefits of economic growth and globalization. Fox next turns to a discussion of biometrics. In past posts, I predicted that biometrics would become a more widely used form of identification. I also noted that the line between essential identity verification and intrusion of privacy is very thin. Fox reports:

“Just as cellphones are standing in for banks, fingerprints are starting to stand in for identity numbers. Widespread fingerprinting is controversial in Western nations, but in countries where births aren’t recorded, people lack official identification, and many can’t even sign their names, fingerprints might be a person’s best shot at securing a bank account. It began in South Africa during the 1990s: Large fingerprint databases that had been used to monitor citizens during the apartheid era were put to a more benevolent purpose – to facilitate the distribution of government financial aid. The fingerprint, in effect, became a person’s PIN, or signature for claiming payments. Fingerprint-based ID has found its way into many other programs since. In East Africa, the Opportunity International Bank of Malawi has used biometric ID to sign up 343,000 customers since 2003. Print-reading bank kiosks travel from village to village in pickup trucks, allowing customers to deposit money in savings accounts; take out loans; and even buy funeral insurance, life insurance, or crop insurance.”

I agree with Fox that mobile phone technology and biometrics have made and will continue to make a huge difference in the lives of many people. He next looks at material technologies that he believes will change the world.

E-fabric (“Roll-to-roll” methods for making flexible, paper-thin computer displays)

Fox’s list of world-changing technologies all rely to some extent on computer chips. He writes, “Computer chips are arguably the most complex objects ever built by humans.” Since computer chips are expected to have such a dramatic impact on the world’s future, making them cheaper and faster is in everyone’s best interest. Fox reports that “John Maltabes, a visiting scholar at Hewlett-Packard (HP) Laboratories in Palo Alto, Calif., imagines a … future … in which electronics are mass-produced like fabrics or newspapers.” [“E-fabric spools bring bullet-proof watches, paper-thin batteries,” Christian Science Monitor, 15 April 2011] Fox continues:

“Imagine a yard-wide sheet of plastic coated in thin layers of metal and semiconductor rolling off a spool in a factory. That sheet passes under a printing press like a rolling pin, which imprints millions of transistors, capacitors, diodes, and wires onto it. The sheet then scrolls through an etcher to complete the printing process. The sheet would wind onto another spool as a finished product: perhaps a sheet of solar cells that could be unrolled and cut to size on a roof, or a flexible television display that could unwind like a blind in a living room.”

Buying your electronics “by the yard,” like in a fabric store, would indeed be a game changer. That is exactly what Maltabes is working on. Fox continues:

“[Maltabes] believes that the cheaper manufacturing and more flexible, durable products could fundamentally change the economic equation of what is affordable to do with electronics in general. … ‘You could “sensor” the world. Think about wrapping the pipes in your house with some kind of material that actually senses the temperature of your pipes. They tell you the pipes are about to freeze and warm them so they don’t freeze.’ Or smart bandages that sense inflammation in a wound and release medications. Or lighted wallpaper, purchased by the roll at Home Depot, that changes color and hue with the turn of a knob. One gadget being created with US military funds is the so-called Dick Tracy wristwatch: This flexible band, strapped on a soldier’s wrist, would provide communication, satellite images, and Google Earth-style maps. … Roll-to-roll manufacturing could also lower the cost of making batteries. Yi Cui, a nanotechnologist at Stanford University, in California, is printing experimental batteries on paper and cloth using inks that contain carbon nanotubes and lithium-containing dust. The technology potentially overcomes a major problem: Engineers would like to store electricity produced by solar and wind farms during the day, so it can be used at night – but the cost of today’s lithium batteries renders this out of reach. … Roll-to-roll could propel another green technology – printed solar cells – into widespread use in developing countries, enhancing the decentralized, off-grid economies that are already emerging.”

Fox’s final world-changing technology also deals with solar power. Instead of turning sunlight into electricity, however, he says that it can be used to create liquid fuel.

Artificial Photosynthesis

With oil prices soaring, consumers are feeling the pinch at the pump. Airlines are also considering reducing their capacity in anticipation of lower ridership as ticket prices climb to cover rising fuel costs. One of the reasons that oil prices are supposedly climbing is because fuel supplies are limited. Fox reports liquid fuel created “via artificial photosynthesis could someday power jet airplanes.” [“Where solar power can’t fly, artificial photosynthesis might, Christian Science Monitor, 16 April 2011] He reports:

“What happened last July over the Jura mountain range of Switzerland might one day be considered the age of sustainability’s ‘Kitty Hawk’ moment. An airplane was lifted into the sky by four nearly silent propellers. Its disproportionately broad wings, 208 feet tip to tip, were covered in solar photovoltaic (PV) cells. Those PV cells converted sunlight into electricity, powered the plane’s motors, and charged a battery. The plane flew for 26 hours – its sun-charged battery powering it through the night.”

Before you get too excited about this “Kitty Hawk” moment, Fox reminds us that the solar-powered aircraft, despite having “a wingspan almost as wide as that of a Boeing 747, … carried just two passengers and puttered along at just 45 miles per hour.” Frankly, that is not earth-changing technology. Fox admits, “Solar planes probably won’t replace the world’s fleet of high-speed, fuel-burning jets.” The world-changing technology that Fox is trumpeting, however, is not solar power per se but artificial photosynthesis. He asks, “Why not turn sunlight directly into fuel instead of electricity?” He continues:

“Nathan Lewis, a chemist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, has built PV cells that split water molecules to generate hydrogen gas, a fuel. His cells convert sunlight into chemical energy 10 to 40 times more efficiently than most crops. ‘It’s reasonable to say that within our first five years we will have working prototypes that can be manufactured at scale,’ says Mr. Lewis.” The challenge will be combining that hydrogen with carbon dioxide to form hydrocarbons found in diesel or jet fuel. It’s chemically possible, but might require a dozen steps. … The venture capital community has funded 100 or more companies looking for other paths to renewable fuels. OPX Biotechnologies, a Boulder, Colo. start-up, is using genetically engineered microbes to turn syn gas, an industrial waste product containing hydrogen and carbon monoxide, into heavy hydrocarbons that it hopes to refine into jet fuel. Other companies are engineering algae that churn out oils similar to diesel. The algae can grow in salt water, so arable land and fresh water aren’t drawn away from food crops.”

My gut feeling is that artificial photosynthesis is not yet a technology prepared to change the world. MIT’s Dr. Daniel Nocera, however, believes it may be closer than I think it is. See the video below.

Fox’s list of technologies is a pretty good one. It is certainly not exhaustive and it may not even have identified the most impactful technologies (although I’m sure that his highlighting of computer chips is spot on). My biggest take-away is that technologists are continuing to confront important challenges and to develop innovative solutions. Regardless of where you live — in the developed or developing world — that should be good news.